En español | Would you give up eating meat if it meant you would live longer?
How about if you didn't have to give it up entirely, maybe just once a week to start, or even once a day?
These are the choices facing many of us as a growing number of studies show that eating red meat daily can raise our risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.
For President Bill Clinton, who recently talked publicly about his decision to give up eating meat, eggs and dairy, the choice was clear: If he didn't do something drastic, his steadily worsening heart disease was going to kill him.
The former president, who has a family history of heart disease, got his first wake-up call in 2004 when he needed quadruple bypass surgery for blocked arteries. Afterward, he cut back on calories and tried to eat less fat to reduce his cholesterol. But six years later he needed stent surgery.
"I essentially concluded that I had played Russian roulette," Clinton told CNN's Sanjay Gupta, M.D. Even though he had made moderate changes to his diet, plaque had built up again in Clinton's artery — and that signaled more serious changes were needed.
The answer, for Clinton, was to go vegan, which means giving up all animal-based foods in favor of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, soy and beans.
His goal now is to avoid any food that could damage his blood vessels, he says. He follows a low-fat, plant-based diet recommended by several doctors, including California physician Dean Ornish, 58, founder of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, who also worked with Clinton during his presidency to include more low-fat food on White House menus. The change in Clinton was particularly dramatic, given his past battles with his weight and his legendary love for fatty junk food. At 65 he's now 24 pounds lighter, energetic, happy, traveling around the world and apparently much healthier.
With Clinton's family history and years of unhealthy eating, a vegan diet is probably good for him, but many people can find it hard to stick to.
A more realistic strategy would be to take baby steps in that direction. Recent research shows that even one small daily change can make a difference.
Consider the latest findings:
- A Harvard study found that eating red meat every other day, instead of daily, can substantially cut your risk for heart disease. Women who ate two servings of red meat a day had a 30 percent higher risk of heart disease compared with women who ate it just three or four times a week.
- A study of 200,000 men and women ages 25 to 75 found that replacing just one serving of red meat a day with either nuts, grains or low-fat dairy lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes by about 20 percent. Conversely, eating just one hot dog or sausage or two strips of bacon daily increased the risk for diabetes by 51 percent.
- Harvard researchers who followed 84,136 women ages 30 to 55 found that eating one serving per day of nuts instead of red meat was linked to a 30 percent lower risk of cardiovascular heart disease; subbing one serving of fish for red meat meant a 24 percent lower risk, poultry a 19 percent lower risk; and low-fat dairy a 13 percent lower risk.
There are other important reasons to cut back on meat consumption — from saving global resources like fresh water and fuel, to reducing the amount of antibiotics and hormones in your diet from factory-farmed meat.
On the other hand, you want to make sure your diet isn't too low in protein, iron and zinc. When you cut out meat protein, you need to swap in plant proteins like beans, lentils and chickpeas, which provide essential nutrients and also keep you from feeling hungry. And anytime you make a change in your diet, be sure sure to consult your doctor.
So what's the best way to slowly but steadily cut back on eating red meat and processed meat? Here are some practical suggestions:
- Meatless Monday. Sid Lerner, 80, gets the credit for reviving a successful campaign used during both world wars to get people to reduce their consumption of meat to aid the war effort. In 2003, Lerner started pushing the concept to get Americans to take one day off from eating meat — not because of a war, but for their own health. The goal is to help people reduce their meat consumption by 15 percent. The now-global campaign has teamed up with Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health. Go to meatlessmonday.com for recipes and information.
- Vegan before dinnertime. Avoid meat at breakfast and lunch, but anything goes at dinner. That's the philosophy of New York Times writer and cookbook author Mark Bittman, who started this strategy in 2008. At the time, he had high cholesterol, borderline high blood sugar, bad knees and sleep apnea, and he was 35 pounds overweight. Becoming a full-time vegan was "both unrealistic and undesirable," he wrote, but he figured he could do it until 6 p.m. He eats fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes (beans, lentils, etc.) until then, and has meat with dinner. The result: He has lost 35 pounds, his blood sugar and cholesterol are normal, and his sleep apnea went away.
- Try the four R's — re-portion, reinvent, refresh and redirect. Registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, who blogs about nutrition for USA Today and is the author of The Flexitarian Diet, is a big believer in slowly increasing the amount of vegetables and beans in your diet, while still including some meat, poultry and fish. Here's her four R's:
Re-portion your plate by making it 50 percent veggies, 25 percent meat, poultry or fish and 25 percent whole grains.
Reinvent old favorites by taking your current favorite recipes and swapping out all or part of the meat with fiber-rich beans. (For each ounce of meat, substitute 1/4 cup beans instead.)
Refresh your recipe repertoire by trying one new vegetarian recipe a week. Check out vegetarian magazines, cookbooks and websites for ideas.
Redirect meaty cravings. To get that meaty sensation in your mouth, but without the meat, look for dishes that include ingredients like soy sauce, mushrooms, potatoes and tomato sauce.
Candy Sagon writes about health and nutrition for the AARP Bulletin.