Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study, diets high in processed meat, like bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meat, and sausage, may kill off more than 100,000 people every year––mostly due to heart disease, but also cancer and diabetes, resulting in millions of healthy years of life lost every year around the world. And it doesn’t take much. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that if Americans could cut down to an ounce a week, thousands of annual cancer deaths could be averted. But that’s on a population scale. How can we better understand our individual risk?

Though the NutriRECS panel in the Annals of Internal Medicine meat papers I’ve done the last few videos about discarded their own findings, using their numbers, a reduction in red and processed meat consumption is associated with a 13 percent lower risk of premature death. What exactly does that mean? What does a 13 percent increased risk of death mean? To get a better handle on it, let me introduce the concept of microlives.

Acute risks, such as riding a motorbike or going skydiving, may result in an accident. A good way to compare such risks is with a unit known as a micromort, defined as a one-in-a-million chance of sudden death. I did a really fascinating video about it recently. “However many risks we take don’t kill you straight away: think of all the lifestyle frailties we get warned about, such as smoking, drinking, eating badly, not exercising, and so on. The microlife aims to make all these chronic risks comparable by showing how much life we lose on average when we’re exposed to them.” A microlife is defined as 30 minutes of your life expectancy.

Why is that? Well, someone in their 20s, a 22-year old man or a 26-year old woman, may have, on average, about 57 years left. That’s about 20,000 days, or 500,000 hours, or 1 million half hours. Aha! So, that is how they define a microlife, a reduction of one of the million half hours we may have left. Here are some things that would, on average, cost a 30-year-old man one microlife. Smoking two cigarettes, drinking two pints of beer, or every day they live 11 pounds overweight. See how helpful this can be in terms of comparing risks. So, drinking a pint of strong beer cuts your life expectancy short as much as smoking one cigarette. If it’s unthinkable to you to have so little respect for your own health that you’d light up twice a day, maybe one cigarette in the morning and one at night, then it should be just as unthinkable being 11 pounds overweight.

Alternatively, you can compare life-extending behaviors. For example, eating at least five servings of fruits and veggies a day may add an average of four years onto your lifespan for men, and three years for women. That’s up to twice as beneficial as exercising every day. But check it out. Exercise for 20 minutes, and you add an hour to your life––two microlives. So, for all those who say they don’t have time to exercise, it’s like a three-to-one return on investment. Give 20 minutes of your life to get 60 minutes of life. Beyond that, there’s a bit of diminishing returns, but exercise an hour a day, and get back more time than you put in.

Okay, so what about the meat? Each burger is associated with the loss of a microlife.

So, it’s as if each burger were taking 30 minutes off your life. So, lifespan-wise, one burger appears to equal two cigarettes. If it wouldn’t occur to you to light up at lunch, maybe you should choose the bean burrito instead.

And processed meat is even worse. There are a couple of equivalent ways you could say it. Imagine two people who are identical in every way, except that one eats around 50 grams of processed meat a day, which is like one large sausage or hot dog, or a few strips of bacon, and the other eats none. Eating that single serving of processed meat every day is expected to take around two years off the length of your life. Two years less with your loved ones, your grandkids, your spouse, two more years of mourning. Or you could think about it on a day-to-day basis. Eating a baloney or ham sandwich every day, just two slices of deli meat, is expected to take around one hour off your life each day. If you don’t think there are ever enough hours in the day, you may have effectively one less, depending on what you pack for lunch. Alternatively, you could think about it in terms of “effective age.” Eating 50 grams of processed meat a day is expected to add around two years onto your “effective age,” meaning basically give you the annual chance of dying of someone two years older.

In summary, wrote the chair of Nutrition at Harvard and colleagues, the NutriRECS meat recommendations suffer from important methodological limitations, and involve misinterpretations of nutritional evidence. “To improve human and planetary health [as a side-bonus], dietary guidelines should continue to emphasize dietary patterns low in red and processed meats and high in minimally processed plant foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes [(beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils)].”

Let me end with a quote from Dr. Dean Ornish about the Annals meat papers that suggested people should continue to eat meat with abandon. His Lifestyle Heart Trial was one of the many studies the meat panel ignored. It showed that a plant-based diet and lifestyle program could reverse the progression of even severe coronary heart disease, the #1 killer of men and women. The control group actually made modest reductions in meat comparable to those in the Annals review and showed continued worsening of their atherosclerosis. “I take solace,” Ornish said, “in knowing that the light drives out the darkness. But, these days, the light has to be very bright indeed. Caveat emptor. Don’t be fooled. Your life may depend on it.”

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