People who eat the most red meat and processed meat have higher risks of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer, says a huge new study in the United States.
The National Cancer Institute study is the largest to look at the highly controversial and emotive issue of whether eating red meat is indeed bad for your health.
Researchers looked at the records of more than 500,000 people aged 50 to 71 who filled out questionnaires on their diet and other health habits.
Even when other factors were accounted for - eating fresh fruits and vegetables, smoking, exercise and obesity - the heaviest meat eaters were more likely to die over the next 10 years than the people who ate the least amount of meat.
The new study found men and women who eat about 110gm of red meat per day - the equivalent of a small steak - had a higher risk for overall death, and dying from heart disease or cancer than those who ate less than one ounce of red meat daily.
"Red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality," lead author Rashmi Sinha and his colleagues wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
They divided the volunteers into five groups, of which 47,976 men and 23,276 women died between 1995 and 2005.
The group who ate the most red meat had a higher risk for overall death, death from heart disease and cancer than those who ate the least red meat.
The researchers said thousands of deaths could be prevented if people simply ate less meat.
"For overall mortality, 11 percent of deaths in men and 16 percent of deaths in women could be prevented if people decreased their red meat consumption to the level of intake in the first group," they wrote.
Many studies have shown that people who eat less meat are healthier in many ways. The new study confirms that meat contains several cancer-causing chemicals, as well as the unhealthiest forms of fat.
Barry Popkin, an expert in nutrition and economics at the University of North Carolina, says the study was unusually thorough and careful.
Eating less meat has other benefits, he says, and governments should start promoting this. Farming animals for meat, for instance, causes greenhouse gas emissions that warm the atmosphere and uses fresh water in excess.
"I was pretty surprised when I checked back and went through the data on emissions from animal food and livestock," Popkin says. "I didn't expect it to be more than cars."
Cancer experts say the study fits in with what is known from other research.
"This large study provides further evidence to support the recommendations by groups such as the World Cancer Research Fund in demonstrating an association between a high consumption of red and processed meats and an increased risk of death from cancer," says Ian Olver, Chief Executive Officer of Cancer Council Australia.
The meat industry denounced the study as flawed. Meat and Livestock Australia says evidence demonstrates that when red meat is eaten as part of a healthy diet, chronic diseases can be prevented.
(China Daily 03/25/2009 page19)