Does eating red meat increase the risk of dying from heart disease or cancer?
It’s a question that keeps coming up, fueled by research and high-profile campaigns by advocacy groups on both sides of the debate.
WebMD asked the experts, looking for answers about disease risk, health benefits, and what role red meat should play in the diet.
Here’s what they had to say.
1. Does eating red meat increase the risk of cancer and heart disease?
A: For heart disease, the answer is pretty clear. Some red meats are high in saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease.
When it comes to cancer, the answer is not so clear. Many researchers say it does raise the risk, especially for colorectal cancer.
A recent National Institutes of Health-AARP study of more than a half-million older Americans concluded that people who ate the most red meat and processed meat over a 10-year-period were likely to die sooner than those who ate smaller amounts. Those who ate about 4 ounces of red meat a day were more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than those who ate the least, about a half-ounce a day. Epidemiologists classified the increased risk as “modest” in the study.
The meat industry contends there is no link between red meat, processed meats, and cancer, and says that lean red meat fits into a heart-healthy diet. A meat industry spokeswoman criticized the design of the NIH-AARP study, saying that studies that rely on participants to recall what foods they eat cannot prove cause and effect. “Many of these suggestions could be nothing more than statistical noise,” says Janet Riley, a senior vice president of the American Meat Institute, a trade group.
But many studies have found similar links. Another one that followed more than 72,000 women for 18 years found that those who ate a Western-style diet high in red and processed meats, desserts, refined grains, and French fries had an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and death from other causes.
“The association between consumption of red and processed meats and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, is very consistent,” says Marji McCullough, PhD, a nutritional epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society.
After a systemic review of scientific studies, an expert panel of the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research concluded in 2007 that “red or processed meats are convincing or probable sources of some cancers.” Their report says evidence is convincing for a link between red meat, processed meat, and colorectal cancer, and limited but suggestive for links to lung, esophageal, stomach, pancreatic, and endometrial cancers.
Rashmi Sinha, PhD, the lead author of the National Cancer Institute study, points to a large number of studies that link red meat consumption with chronic diseases.