You might be 40 on the outside (and 35 to that hot younger guy you’ve been seeing), but on the inside, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland say your biological age is likely much older—and your favorite burger may be to blame. Yes, that’s right, eating too much conventional red meat and not enough produce could be accelerating your body's biological clock, according to their new study published in the journal Aging. Unlike your chronological age (you know, the age your well-intentioned mother writes on all of your birthday cards), biological age is dependent on the health of your genes and has been closely tied to a person's risk of age-related diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, and cancer.
But let’s get back to that burger of yours. While unprocessed organic red meat doesn’t accelerate the biological aging process, processed conventional varieties, can. And it’s all because they’re pumped with phosphates to improve their shelf life, tenderness, and flavor. Even though phosphates are necessary to help our cells function, excess phosphate cannot be processed by the body, causing high levels of the chemical to build up in the blood—and that’s bad news. Multiple studies have linked high levels of serum phosphates to higher rates of heart disease, chronic kidney disease, weak bones, and even premature death.
For these very reasons, the scientific minds behind the study, decided to analyze the diets of people living in Glasgow, Scotland and see if there was a connection between frequent red meat consumption, high blood phosphate levels and accelerated biological aging—and they found one among men living in the most deprived parts of the city. The researchers speculate that this finding could be explained by the men’s poor overall diet due to limited access to fruits, vegetables, and organic meats, and ease of access to phosphate-laden meats.
The study had a few caveats, however. Due to the small sample size and observational nature of the study, the results don’t prove that increased red meat consumption was the sole cause of the higher-than-average phosphate levels. Plus, it didn’t differentiate red meat sources by quality or preservation—both factors which play a role in phosphate levels and make it hard to generalize their findings. While further studies are needed to see if all red meats, red meats with added phosphates, or even other processed foods with phosphates (like baked goods and chicken nuggets), could be to blame, that doesn't mean you can eat red meat without abandon. The link between increased red meat consumption and early death has been noted in multiple studies, including a recent review that examined over 1.5 million people in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Many of these studies speculate that the increased risk of all-cause mortality is due to the fact that people who eat a lot of red meat also tend to eat fewer plant-based foods, so they consume fewer of their protective antioxidants and nutrients.
Eat This! Tip
The takeaway? Don’t let meat—especially processed or conventional red meats—crowd the fruits and veggies off your plate. And if you’re craving red meat, be sure to eat it in moderation (no more than three 3-ounce servings weekly) and always buy organic. Certified organic meats don’t contain additives of any type, including phosphates.