Volume 2, Issue 27
July 2, 2009

Should you be a raw-food vegetarian?

One thing that most humans seem to relate to is fads — especially diet fads. And one of the most popular current fads is that of "raw-food diets."

According to proponents of the raw-food movement, people who eat vegetables, grains, nuts, and beans that have not been cooked have increased energy, improved skin appearance, better digestion, weight loss, and a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer. So what's the truth about these claims?

For sure, there is strong statistical evidence and weaker scientific evidence that a diet that stresses less animal protein is healthier. And now a new study backs up this idea.

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The study comes out of the National Cancer Institute-Nutritional Epidemiology Branch in Rockville, Maryland. It looked at the diets of over half a million people between the ages of 50 to 71. The researchers were particularly looking to see if meat intake had much of an effect on the health of these people. Here's what they found.

The researchers analyzed the participants according to how much meat and what kind of meat they ate. During the 10-year study period, 71,252 people died. It turned out that those who ate the most red meat were more than 30% more likely to have died from any kind of disease than those who ate less red meat. Then they looked at specific diseases.

In terms of cancer, those eating the highest amounts of red meat were more than 20% more likely to die of any kind of cancer. For heart disease, the risk was more — about 30% for the heavy red meat eaters. Then they looked at the death rate among people who ate a higher proportion of white meats and found just the opposite. People who ate the most white meats were about 10% less likely to have died from any cause than those who ate very little white meats. This of course is presumably due to the fact that those who ate more white meats tended to eat less red meat.

In this study, red meat included all types of beef and pork such as bacon, beef, cold cuts, hamburgers, hotdogs, steak, and meats in pizza, lasagna, and stew. White meat included chicken, turkey, and fish, along with poultry cold cuts, canned tuna, and low-fat hotdogs.

This was a pretty good study because the researchers took into consideration all of the other factors that might have influenced the results. These included age, education, marital status, presence or absence of family history of cancer (for cancer mortality only), race, body mass index, smoking history, physical activity, energy intake, alcohol drinking, use of vitamin supplements, fruit consumption, vegetable consumption, and use of menopausal hormone therapy in women.

So how much meat did the study consider to be a lot? On average, the low red meat eaters ate about one-third of an ounce per 1,000 kcal of diet per day. Compare this to the men and women in the highest group of red meat intake who ate about 2 1/3 ounces per 1,000 kcal. That's almost eight times more!
Overall, the researchers concluded that we could prevent 11% of deaths among men and 16% of deaths among women if we all kept our level of red meat consumption to a maximum of one-third of an ounce for every 1,000 calories.

For me, this study clinches it. For years, I didn't counsel my patients to eat less meat because I was not sure how much less they should eat. Now I have some guidelines to follow. Does a raw-food diet make sense? Yes, to some degree. I don't believe that there's any convincing evidence that a strict raw-food diet is healthier than one that's less strict. Nevertheless the evidence is strong that the more raw foods you incorporate into your diet, the less chance you have of dying early.

So when you look at your plate, work on making sure that 90% of what you see consists of vegetables, beans, legumes, and salads. And concentrate on keeping your intake of meat low, especially the red meat.

Finding your Real Cures,

Frank Shallenberger, MD

REFS: Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, Leitzmann MF, Schatzkin A. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Mar 23;169(6):562-71.

Copyright 2009 Soundview Publishing, LLC

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