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Eating 3 Ounces of Red Meat Per Day May Beef Up Cancer Risk

Jan. 11, 2005 -- Bad news for beef eaters: Red meat really does increase your risk of colon cancer.

It's not exactly news. Many studies suggest that people who eat the most meat get the most cancer. Now a huge, 20-year study from the American Cancer Society confirms these findings. The bottom line: Those who eat the most red meat -- beef and/or pork and/or processed meat products -- get colon cancer 30% to 40% more often than those who eat these foods only once in a while.

The news is particularly bad for those who favor lots of lunchmeats, hot dogs, and sausages. Eating lots of these processed foods raises colon cancer risk by 50%, reports Marjorie L. McCullough, ScD, senior epidemiologist at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. McCullough and colleagues report the findings in the Jan. 12 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association.

"The bottom line is that the people who were eating the most red meat had higher colon cancer risk than those eating the least," McCullough tells WebMD. "Very few of these lower-risk people ate no red meat. It is not that we are saying people can never have red meat. But this shows it is important to limit the amount of red meat you eat."

The researchers collected detailed information on the diets of nearly 150,000 men and women aged 50 to 74 living in 21 U.S. states. They collected data in 1982 and 1992-1993, and followed them through the end of August 2001. In that time, 1,667 of the study participants developed colon cancer.

The study accounted for factors that are known to increase colon cancer risk, such as smoking, being overweight, little physical activity, alcohol use, age, and low fiber intake as well as factors known to decrease risk, such as daily aspirin use.

How Much Red Meat Is Safe to Eat?

The findings are sobering, given the amount of red meat Americans love to eat.

"For Americans, estimates of per capita red-meat consumption come out to a little more than 5 ounces per day," McCullough says. "That is a little higher than the highest level of red-meat consumption in this study."

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