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Red meat linked to early death

13th March 2012

Red meat has been linked in a new study by US researchers to a higher risk of an early death from heart disease and cancer.


The research team at Harvard University carried out an observational study into the eating habits of more than 120,000 people.

Delving every four years into the dietary habits of mostly middle-aged participants in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, they questioned them about their eating habits, smoking and drinking, body weight and exercise.

They found that people who ate the most beef, pork or lamb had a higher risk of dying in the next 20 years than those who ate the least red meat.

They concluded that just three ounces of unprocessed red meat raised the risk of early death from heart disease by around 20% and the risk of dying of cancer by around 10%.

Processed meats carried an even higher risk, with a single daily serving of two rashers of bacon or one hot dog raising heart disease mortality risk by 21% and cancer death risk by 16%, compare with people who ate the least red meat in the study.

The researchers suggested replacing red meat with chicken, fish or vegetarian proteins like nuts and beans. The overall effect of such substitutions could result in a 7-19% lower risk of early death than people who eat small quantities of red meat.

Preventive medicine specialist Dean Ornish said in a commentary on the study that people should consider limiting themselves to an entirely plant-based diet.

But he said that substituting chicken and fish for beef also lowered the risk of early death.

The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, has caused a strong reaction among beef producers, who say that an observational study of this kind is unable to prove that there is a causal link between red meat and mortality.

According to National Cattlemen’s Beef Association executive director Shalene McNeill, further clinical evidence would be needed, including randomised controlled trials.

She cited studies of this kind which had shown that a diet that included lean beef could improve heart health by lowering cholesterol.

While red meat is high in usable iron and protein to maintain muscle, it also has relatively high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol, which are linked to heart disease and cancer.

The high levels of sodium in processed meats like sausages and bacon could also contribute to high blood pressure, while the nitrites used to preserve them have been linked to bladder, kidney and pancreatic cancers.

Cooking meat at high temperatures can also release carcinogenic compounds into food.

However, people who eat red meat may also have a lifestyle that is overall more risky to health.

The red meat-eaters in the Harvard study, which focused mostly on women in their forties and men in their fifties, were also less likely to exercise and more likely to be drinkers and smokers.

However, previous research has also suggested a link between early mortality and red meat.

People who ate a daily serving of beef were 30% more likely to die in the next 10 years than those who only ate red meat occasionally, according to a 2009 study by the National Cancer Institute.

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