Dietary choices play a significant role in overall health. Consumption of red and processed meats has been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers, among other illnesses. Red meats tend to be high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which are well-known contributors to coronary heart disease and heart attack . Processed meats (eg, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, ham, packaged lunch meats) are often high in salts and nitrates, which may contribute to high blood pressure and cancer respectively.
The National Cancer Institute conducted a study to determine if there is a relationship between the consumption of particular types of meats and an increased risk of death from illness. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine , found that higher consumption of red and processed meats was associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and associated deaths, cancer deaths, and deaths from any illness.
About the Study
The study involved 617,119 men and women who were 50-71 years old at the start of the study. On entering the study, participants were asked to fill out a food frequency survey. They were then followed for 10 years. Deaths from any illness and incidence of cardiovascular disease were recorded.
Compared to people in the lowest levels of red meat consumption (average 0.32 ounces per 1000 calories), men with the highest levels of red meat consumption (average 2.39 ounces per 1000 calories) experienced a:
- 31% higher rate of all-cause mortality;
- 22% higher rate of cancer mortality; and
- 27% higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
For women with the highest levels of red meat consumption (average 2.32 ounces per 1000 calories) the results were even more dramatic. They experienced a:
- 36% higher rate of all-cause mortality;
- 20% higher rate of cancer mortality; and
- 50% higher risk of cardiovascular disease.
Compared to people in the lowest levels of processed meat consumption (average 0.17 ounces per 1000 calories), men with the highest levels of processed meat consumption (average 0.67 ounces per 1000 calories) experienced a:
- 16% higher rate of all-cause mortality;
- 12% higher rate of cancer mortality; and
- 9% higher rate of cardiovascular disease.
Again the results were more significant for women with the highest levels of processed meat consumption (average 0.56 ounces per 1000 calories) They experienced a:
- 25% higher rate of all-cause mortality;
- 11% higher rate of cancer mortality; and
- 38% higher rate of cardiovascular disease.
The study also found that compared to participants with the lowest levels of white meat consumption (1 ounce per 1000 calories), the participants that had higher intakes of white meat (1.3 ounces per 1000 calories) had a lower risk of all-cause mortality and cancer-specific mortalities.
How Does This Affect You?
These results were based on an observational study , which means participants were simply observed and no attempt was made to influence other factors that may contribute to their health. Despite their best efforts, researchers cannot always control for factors that may skew the results of such studies. While this study, therefore, cannot prove a cause and effect relationship, it is still consistent with similar research highlighting the dangers of a staunchly meat-focused diet. While theories abound regarding why red and processed meats seem to shorten life expectancy, it is not entirely clear that the only culprit is to be found in the meat itself. Heavy meat-eaters tend to limit their consumption of other more healthful foods well-known to protect against heart disease and some cancers.
A balanced diet consisting of plenty of fruits and vegetables and whole grains , along with regular physical activity, has consistently been shown to reduce the risk of these illnesses and promote longevity. If you consistently choose fish and poultry and save lean red meat and low-salt processed meat for the occasional treat, you will strike just the right balance and possibly live longer to enjoy them.
- Reviewer: Richard Glickman-Simon, MD
- Review Date: 06/2009 -