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Eating Red Meat May Boost Death Risk

Study Shows Red Meat Consumption Linked to Higher Risk of Dying From Cancer, Heart Disease
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WebMD Health News

March 23, 2009 -- Men and women who eat higher amounts of red meat and processed meat have a higher risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, and other causes compared to those who eat less, according to a new study.

Those in the study who ate the most red meat took in about 4.5 ounces a day -- the equivalent of a small steak.

"We found the consumption of red and processed meat is associated with a modest increase in overall mortality, as well as cancer and cardiovascular mortality in both men and women," says study researcher Rashmi Sinha, PhD, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute.

The study, supported by the National Cancer Institute, is published this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The author of an accompanying editorial says he views the risks found in the study as more than "modest."

Cutting down on red meat and processed meat would result in a "meaningful saving of lives," Barry Popkin, PhD, tells WebMD. Popkin is The Carla Smith Chamblee Distinguished Professor of Global Nutrition at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health, Chapel Hill. In a note accompanying his editorial, he states that he is not a vegetarian and has no financial conflict of interest related to food products affecting health.

Red Meat and Processed Meat Study

The recent study is believed to be the largest study to date looking at the links between red and processed meat and their effect on the risk of death from cancer, heart disease, and other causes, Sinha tells WebMD.

Her team evaluated more than 500,000 men and women who participated in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. Participants were between the ages of 50 and 71 when the study began in 1995, and all provided detailed information about their food intake.

The researchers followed them for 10 years, using the Social Security Administration's databases to track causes of death. During the follow-up period, 47,976 men and 23,276 women died.

Then the researchers evaluated dietary habits. "We divided people into five categories," Sinha tells WebMD, according to how much red meat and processed meat was eaten on a daily basis.

For the study, red meat included beef, pork, bacon, ham, hamburger, hot dogs, liver, pork sausage, steak, and meats in foods such as pizza, stews, and lasagna.

White meat included turkey, fish, chicken, chicken mixtures, and other meats.

Processed meat was either white or red meat that was cured, dried, or smoked, Sinha says, such as bacon, chicken sausage, lunch meats, and cold cuts. 

Meat Intakes: High vs. Low

What was considered a high intake and what was low?

  • For red meat, those in the highest intake group ate a median amount of 4.5 ounces a day (half ate more, half ate less), based on an average 2,000-calorie a day diet. Those in the lowest intake group ate a little over a half-ounce a day.
  • For processed meat, those in the highest intake group about 1.5 ounces a day (about 2 slices of deli turkey), compared to just 0.11 ounces for those in the lowest intake group.

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