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Red meat linked to premature death

Fish, poultry lowered risk in federal study

By Rob Stein
Washington Post / March 24, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Eating red meat increases the chances of dying prematurely, according to a large federal study that offers powerful new evidence that a diet that regularly includes steaks, burgers, and pork chops is hazardous to your health.

The study of more than 500,000 middle-age and elderly Americans found that those who consumed the equivalent of about a small hamburger every day were more than 30 percent more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer. Sausage, cold cuts, and other processed meats also increased the risk.

Previous research had found a link between red meat and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, but the new study is the first large examination of the relationship between eating meat and overall mortality.

"The bottom line is we found an association between red meat and processed meat and an increased risk of mortality," said Rashmi Sinha of the National Cancer Institute, who led the study published today in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

In contrast, routine consumption of fish, chicken, turkey, and other poultry decreased the risk of death by a small amount, the study found.

"This would be the Rolls-Royce of studies on this topic," said Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study.

"This is a slam-dunk to say that, 'Yes, indeed, if people want to be healthy and live longer, consume less red and processed meat.' "

There are many explanations for how red meat might be unhealthy: Cooking red meat generates cancer-causing compounds; red meat is also high in saturated fat, which has been associated with breast and colorectal cancer; and meat is also high in iron, which also is believed to promote cancer. People who eat red meat are more likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, which increases the risk of heart disease. Processed meats contain substances known as nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer.

Regardless of the mechanism, the research provides new evidence that people should follow long-standing recommendations to minimize red meat consumption, several specialists said.

"The take-home message is pretty clear," said Walter Willett, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health.

"It would be better to shift from red meat to white meat such as chicken and fish, which if anything is associated with lower mortality."

The American Meat Institute, a trade group, dismissed the findings, however, saying they were based on unreliable self-reporting by the study participants.

"Meat products are part of a healthy, balanced diet, and studies show they actually provide a sense of satisfaction and fullness that can help with weight control.

"Proper body weight contributes to good health overall," James Hodges, the group's executive president, said in a written statement.

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