March 24, 2009 in Nation/World

Red meat can lead to early death, study finds

Eating fish, poultry found to reduce mortality risk
Rob Stein Washington Post
 

What’s so bad?

There are many explanations for how red meat might be unhealthy: Cooking red meat generates cancer-causing compounds; red meat is also high in saturated fat, which has been associated with breast and colorectal cancer; and meat is also high in iron, which is also believed to promote cancer. People who eat red meat are more likely to have high blood pressure and cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Processed meats contain substances known as nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer.

WASHINGTON – Eating red meat increases the chances of dying prematurely, according to a large federal study that offers powerful new evidence that a diet that regularly includes steaks, burgers and pork chops is hazardous to your health.

The study of more than 500,000 middle-age and elderly Americans found that those who consumed the equivalent of about a small hamburger every day were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer. Sausage, cold cuts and other processed meats also increased the risk.

Previous research had found a link between red meat and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, but the new study is the first large examination of the relationship between eating meat and overall mortality.

“The bottom line is we found an association between red meat and processed meat and an increased risk of mortality,” said Rashmi Sinha of the National Cancer Institute, who led the study published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In contrast, routine consumption of fish, chicken, turkey and other poultry decreased the risk of death by a small amount, the study found.

Although pork is often promoted as “white meat,” it is believed to increase the risk for cancer because of its iron content, Sinha said. It is often grouped with red meat in nutritional studies.

“This would be the Rolls Royce of studies on this topic,” said Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. “This is a slam-dunk to say that, ‘Yes, indeed, if people want to be healthy and live longer, consume less red and processed meat.’ ”

The research provides new evidence that people should follow long-standing recommendations to minimize red meat consumption, several experts said.

“The take-home message is pretty clear,” said Walter Willett, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health. “It would be better to shift from red meat to white meat such as chicken and fish, which if anything is associated with lower mortality.”

The American Meat Institute, a trade group, dismissed the findings, however, saying they were based on unreliable self-reporting by the study participants.

“Meat products are part of a healthy, balanced diet, and studies show they actually provide a sense of satisfaction and fullness that can help with weight control. Proper body weight contributes to good health overall,” James Hodges, the group’s executive president, said in a written statement.

For the study, researchers analyzed data collected from 545,653 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, participating in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. In 1995, the subjects filled out detailed questionnaires about their diets, including their meat consumption. Over the next 10 years, 47,976 men and 23,276 women died.


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