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Why I gave up red meat

June 11, 2012

I am a native of the South. I was born and raised in Central Florida with a family who enjoys its share of sweet tea, mashed potatoes and gravy, and holiday barbecues. My grandfather even used to dry his own beef jerky in the backyard. So you can imagine the quizzical looks and questions I received when I – abruptly – decided to stop eating red meat. Why would you do such a thing? Are you a vegan now? How long will you keep it up? It’s been two and a half years since my last taste of beef, and now I can look back with greater clarity to answer why I made such a snap decision.

Heart problems run in my family. In 1996, my paternal grandfather died in his sleep of a massive heart attack. He was 58. That same year, my maternal grandfather was rushed to the hospital with chest pains, which most likely would have resulted in a heart attack without the immediate medical care he was given. He was 50. At the time, I was just a young child, and their medical issues were of no concern to me. But as time passed and I grew older and wiser, I began to see a future for myself that I needed to change – and change fast.

Red meat includes beef, lamb, and pork (yes – even “the other white meat” is red!) and has been associated with cardiovascular disease and certain kinds of cancer. Processed meat, including poultry, takes things one step further through preservation methods like smoking, curing, or salting. Sausage, bacon, ham, pepperoni, bologna, deli meats – they are all processed! While red meat does have its inherent risks, processed red meat should come with even more caution flags.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends limiting red meat consumption and avoiding processed meat all together. Their research indicates that consuming more than 18 ounces of red meat per week or consuming any processed meat at all both greatly increase one’s likelihood of developing colorectal cancer. A recent study, conducted over a 28-year period by the Harvard School of Public Health, echoes the AICR’s sentiments and goes so far as to recommend cutting red meat out of one’s diet entirely. Cancer, of course, is not the only risk associated with red and processed meat consumption. Certain red and processed meats are high in saturated fat, which can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels, leading to cardiovascular disease.

I was at the gym one night, huffing and puffing on the treadmill, when I made the decision to see how long I could go without consuming red meat. I started by giving up beef. A year later, I gave up pork. I took my choices as personal challenges that I was determined to accomplish. Since dramatically changing my diet, I have had only positive results. I feel healthier. I lost 20 lbs. I’m more active and confident. I’ve learned about all kinds of new foods I never knew I liked! Seafood, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and new fruits and vegetables have all slowly crept into my regular eating schedule.

Of course maintaining a healthy diet is still possible with red meat, as long as it is consumed in moderation and lean, unprocessed choices are made. Red meat is also an undeniably good source of iron and protein. And every now and then, it’s ok to indulge in a slice of bacon or a piece of steak! It’s when these choices begin to dominate your meals that there is room for concern.

Not everyone will agree with me, and I certainly don’t expect you to. Do some research, talk to nutrition experts, and make a healthy decision that is right for you. For me, red meat was a natural choice. It added more risk to my health than it was worth and I rarely, if ever, miss or crave it. Giving up red meat started a chain reaction of healthy eating habits that have made me feel better than ever. Sometimes, it only takes one decision to lead to major positive change in your lifestyle.

And so now I’d like to hear from you. What’s a big decision that you’ve made that led to positive results? What advice do you have for others trying to make important dietary changes?