For the Love of Your Liver, Cut Down on Red Meat

Red meat doesn’t have the best reputation, and that reputation may have just gotten worse. New research from the National Institutes of Health AARP Diet and Health study found those who consumed the most red meat and saturated fat were significantly more likely to die from chronic liver disease or develop liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma) compared to those who consumed the least red meat.  Conversely, higher consumption of white meat was associated with a reduced risk of developing these conditions compared to lower consumption of white meat.

Known risk factors for developing chronic liver disease and/or hepatocellular carcinoma are exposure to foods containing aflatoxins, excess alcohol consumption, and chronic infection with hepatitis B or hepatitis C.  We also know that excess fatty deposits in the liver can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, yet very few studies have investigated the association of diet and risk of liver disease or liver cancer.

In this study, researchers pulled data from 495,006 participants aged 50 to 71 from the National Institutes of Health AARP study. At the beginning of the study, participants completed dietary questionnaires which addressed how often participants consumed certain foods over the past year.  Lifestyle questionnaires, including information about physical activity, alcohol use and tobacco use, were also completed at baseline, and data about health status were also collected.

After adjusting for a variety of lifestyle factors and pre-existing health status, the study found that high intakes of red meat (about 4.5 oz. per day on a 2,000 calorie per day diet) to be associated with a 2.6 times greater risk of death from liver disease and a 1.7 times greater risk of developing liver cancer comapred to low intakes of red meat (less than 1 oz. per day on a 2,000 calorie per day diet).

Interestingly, the opposite relationship was observed for white meat intake: researchers found those who consumed the highest amounts of leaner white meat (chicken, turkey and fish) had about half the risk of dying from liver disease or developing liver cancer compared to those who consumed the lowest amounts. (The “high” and “low” quantities for white meat were almost identical to those described above for red meat).  Researchers also found that higher intakes of processed meat, such as bacon and coldcuts, heme (animal-based) iron, and preservatives such as nitrates and nitrites were associated with an increased risk of dying from chronic liver disease, but not developing cancer.

But don’t swear off steak just yet. This study had notable limitations. For one, the results were based on self-reported food and alcohol intakes. This is not a very accurate way to gather data; especially considering that most people underreport their use of alcohol. Most importantly, the study did not have access to data regarding the incidence of hepatitis B and hepatitis C infection among participants. This is a major shortcoming, because these two viral infections are known to cause liver disease and liver cancer. Having said that, this study is valuable in that it did find an association; but given the limitations, more research is needed on the relation of diet to liver disease.

So does this mean if you eat red meat you will get liver disease? No. This study does, however, supplement the large body of research that suggests that reducing your consumption of red meat may be beneficial to your health. Red meat may not have the best reputation, but it does contain some important nutrients. If you are a red meat-lover, the best recommendation is to limit your intake to no more than twice per week, and stick to a three ounce serving when you do indulge, (three ounces is about the size of a deck of cards.)  When you do choose to eat meat, your best bet is to opt for white meats, like chicken, turkey and fish. 

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  • But what kind of red meat were the people in the study ingesting? There’s a big difference in the nutritional profiles of free-range, grass fed, humanely raised and humanely slaughtered cattle and corn-fed, feed lot cattle.

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