Noticed a lot of publicity lately about red and processed meat increasing the risk of cancer and death?

The Introduction

Recent research is suggesting that high intakes of red or processed meat may increase death risk. A 2009 study  by the National Cancer Institute in America determined relationships between red and processed meat intakes and risk of total and cause-specific (e.g. cancer, heart disease) mortality.

The Research

salamisBetween 1995 and 1996, the researchers mailed 3.5 million questionnaires to members of the AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) aged 50-71 years. The questionnaire included a dietary section (including a 124-question food-frequency survey) as well as lifestyle questions. Over 500,000 people returned the questionnaire.  In 1996-1997 they mailed these participants a Risk-Factor Questionnaire which asked additional questions about lifestyle and behaviour. In 2004-2006 they mailed out a follow-up questionnaire. With the returned questionnaires, they divided the participants into five groups (called quintiles) based on their meat consumption.

The Results

The 20% who ate the most red meat averaged 2.2 ounces (about 62 gm) of red meat per 1,000 Calories (4,200 kJ) eaten per day. On a ‘normal’ diet, that’s about the equivalent of a quarter-pound hamburger a day or nearly 2 pounds (450 gm) of beef or pork a week. The 20% of people who ate the least red meat averaged only 5 ounces (140 gm) of red meat over a week. Even after statistically accounting for factors such as body mass index, family history, alcohol intake, smoking, fruit and vegetable consumption and exercise habits, the highest meat eaters were more likely to die and die from cancer or cardiovascular disease than the group who eat the least red meat.  Similar finding were found when comparing the death rates of those that ate the most and least processed meats.

The So Whats

The researchers concluded that high intakes of red and processed meat were associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality. Both red and processed meats are a source of several carcinogens, including chemicals formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Iron in red meat may also increase oxidative damage and the formation of carcinogenic compounds. Furthermore, meat is a major source of saturated fat, which increases the risk of breast and colorectal cancer and raises blood cholesterol levels.

This research suggests we should: eat more white meat, buy lean cuts of red meat, look for cuts with the least amount of visible fat, trim any visible fat before cooking, marinate the meat in beer or wine before grilling (recent research suggests this may reduce carcinogenic compound formation), don’t burn meat when cooking, drain cooked ground meat or roll in paper towels to absorb remaining fat, eat more fruit and vegetables, especially those containing flavonoids (natural antioxidants) such as tomatoes, onions, fruit skins, citrus fruit and drink soy milk and moderate amounts of beer.

Photo from: njdminiatures

Sinha, R., Cross, A., Graubard, B., Leitzmann, M., Schatzkin A. (2009). Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Archives of Internal Medicine, 169(6): 562-571.