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Latest on how meat, soda, and exercise affects your life span

Consumer Reports News: March 13, 2012 10:08 AM

If your daily routine is an extra large soda and a bacon cheeseburger for lunch, and pushing the remote control is your most strenuous activity, then I’d like to be named as your life insurance beneficiary. This from reading three new health studies that show that the things many of us enjoy most in life are apt to shorten your life. But the happy subtext from all these studies is that just improving your habits by a little bit, can have a big payoff in life expectancy.

The first study, from the Harvard School of Public Health, looked at combined data from two studies spanning up to 28 years with 121,342 participants. The researchers found an elevated risk of dying (either from cardiovascular disease or cancer) for each additional serving of red meat consumed. The risk of death was 12% higher for total red meat eaten, 13% higher for “unprocessed” red meat (like steaks and chops), and 20% higher for processed red meat (such as sausage, bacon, and lunchmeat).

But don’t feel lonely, carnivores – the beverage people may have you beat. In the second study, published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, 42,883 men were followed over 22 years. The researchers found that for each sugar-sweetened drink men consumed per day, the risk of coronary heart disease increased by 19 to 25 percent.

The third study is in the Archives of Internal Medicine and really felt like a case of “use it or lose it.” Looking at almost 900 older men and women (with a mean age of 82), this study once again found a link between exercise and longevity. The more physical activity people engage in as they get older, the greater their chances of living longer. In fact, a participant with a high total daily physical activity (90th percentile) had approximately one-fourth the risk of death compared to someone in the lowest activity level.

Changing habits, especially ones we enjoy – like feasting on red meat, sipping soda, and taking it too easy – can be really hard. But these three studies all point out that small changes can make a big difference. The researchers in the meat study estimated that up to 19% of the deaths could be prevented by substituting something else (fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, or whole grains) for one serving a day of red meat. So skipping the bacon on the cheeseburger and choosing a whole wheat bun could help.

For the second study – no link was found between artificially sweetened beverages and an increased risk of heart disease, so switching to diet soft drinks might lower your risk. Or better yet – develop a taste for unsweetened drinks, like unsweetened ice tea, seltzer, or just plain water, and save the soda pop for an occasional treat.

As for exercise? The bright point in that study is that longevity benefits were associated with total daily exercise, not just sweating at a gym. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking an extra row away, or going for a walk with a friend over lunch may all help you live longer.

"The devil has put a penalty on all things we enjoy in life,” according to Albert Einstein, “Either we suffer in health or we suffer in soul or we get fat." This may be true, but there are ways to reduce the penalties without forsaking all the pleasure.


Red Meat Consumption and Mortality, Results from 2 Prospective Cohort Studies [Archives of Internal Medicine]

Sweetened Beverage Consumption, Incident Coronary Heart Disease and Biomarkers of Risk in Men [Circulation, Journal of the American Heart Association]

Total Daily Physical Activity and Longevity in Old Age [Archives of Internal Medicine]

Erin Riddell

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