Study links red meat to early death

A new study has found a link between red meat consumption and increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer, scientists claim.

The study, carried out by the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, concluded that daily consumption of 85g of red meat increased the risk of early death by 13%, while a serving of processed red meat equal to two slices of bacon increased the risk of death by 20%.

Specifically, researchers found that daily consumption of red meat increased the risk of dying from heart disease by 18% and cancer by 10%, while daily consumption of processed meat increased the risk of death from heart disease by 21% and cancer by 16%, they claimed. They also predicted that 9.2% of deaths in men and 7.6% of deaths in women could have been prevented if people had cut their red meat consumption to less than 42.5g of red meat per day, replacing it with other proteins such as poultry, fish, legumes and nuts.

“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” said co-author Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH. “On the other hand, choosing more healthful sources of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity and mortality.”

However, the scientists admitted that people who ate more red meat were less likely to be physically active and more likely to be smokers, drink alcohol and be overweight. Additionally, red meat intake was associated with lower intake of fruit and vegetables.

Dr Carrie Ruxton of the Meat Advisory Panel (MAP) questioned the reliability of the study, which prospectively observed over 100,000 people for around 28 years, assessing their diets through questionnaires. “The study was observational, not controlled, and so cannot be used to determine cause and effect,” she said.

She added that the authors’ conclusion that people could reduce risk of death by swapping a portion of red meat for poultry or fish each week was based on a theoretical model and conflicted with evidence from three recent intervention studies, which showed no reduction in risk.

“This suggests that a simple switch from red meat to white meat or fish doesn’t provide the benefits anticipated by the theoretical model. Clearly, other factors, such as body weight, fat intakes, physical activity and fruit/vegetable consumption, are also important,” she said.

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