If your average meal consists of meat with a side of meat, and you consider vegetables—to quote Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson—to be “rabbit food,” we’ve got some bad news for you. A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that eating a diet that’s rich in animal protein and red meat can seriously decrease your lifespan.
While previous research has indicated that a plant-based diet is better for overall longevity than an animal-based one, some of the results have been inconclusive. In an effort to make this study as wide-ranging and scientifically sound as possible, researchers from the University of Eastern Finland collected data from the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study, which consisted of 2,641 Finnish men who were between the ages of 42 and 60 when the study began. They recorded their dietary habits and then, the researchers followed up with the participants 22 years later.
During the follow-up, 1,225 participants had died due to disease. After examining the causes of death and diets, the scientists deduced that men who ate more than 7 ounces of meat per day had a 23 percent increased likelihood of death compared to men who ate less than 3 ounces of meat on a daily basis. Meanwhile, the researchers did not find that the intake of fish, eggs, dairy, or plant protein sources were associated with mortality.
Heli Virtanen, a registered dietitian, PhD student in nutrition epidemiology at the University of Eastern Finland, and lead author of this study, cautioned that “these findings should not be generalized to older people … whose intake of protein often remains below the recommended amount.”
So, you don’t have to cut meat out entirely if you want to live a long healthy life, but moderation is key. For example, a global study of more than 218,000 people presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress in 2018 found that eating red meat can actually be heart-healthy, so long as you have no more than 4 ounces of it per day. The scientists suggested that red meat and dairy should account for a quarter of your daily caloric intake—and the rest of your calories should be consumed via fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and seafood.
This corroborates the findings of another recent study that evaluated the consumption of major foods and nutrients across 195 countries. Those researchers found that people with the longest lifespans tended to follow a Mediterranean diet, which consists primarily of seafood, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and a moderate intake of red meat and wine.
A minimal amount of meat has also been shown to help you sleep, reduce your risk of cancer, fight depression, and even enhance fertility. So, no need to put down that hamburger for lunch just yet—just don’t have one for dinner, too. And for more on longevity, check out 100 Ways to Live to 100.