Red meat’s cancer risk confirmed

  • 13 Mar 2012
  • Reading time 2 mins
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Eating red meat increases risk of death from both cancer and cardiovascular disease, confirms a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine of over 120,000 people. Those eating one serving of meat a day increase risk of mortality by 12 per cent - if it’s processed meat, such as sausages and most burgers, the increase is 20 per cent. That’s the bad news.

But swapping a red meat serving with fish, chicken or a vegetarian source of protein such as nuts, legumes, whole grains of low-fat dairy products cuts risk by between 7 and 19 per cent, with nut servings being the most protective, followed by whole grains. So, going from 2 meat servings a day to 1 serving every other day, and switching to vegetarian protein, would be expected to more than halve risk over the next twenty years in 50 plus year old people. The authors of the study estimate that “9.3 percent in men and 7.6 percent in women of total deaths during follow-up could be prevented if all the participants consumed fewer than 0.5 servings per day of total red meat”. Dr Dean Ornish, of the University of California, an advocate of vegetarian eating commented that “in addition to their health benefits, the food choices we make each day affect other important areas as well. What is personally sustainable is globally sustainable. What is good for you is good for our planet. More than 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion in annual U.S. health care costs are from chronic disease. Eating less red meat is likely to reduce morbidity from these illnesses, thereby reducing health care costs”. I quit red meat back in the 1980’s and aim for four servings of fish a week, three being oily, then make up the rest with vegetarian sources of protein. Last night, for example, I enjoyed a wholegrain pasta and, at the weekend had a nut roast for two meals and a serving of salmon in another. This pattern of eating is consistent with the lowest level of risk. A thinner edge of the wedge would mean red meat no more than three times a week. Although the study couldn’t elucidate this, it is highly plausible that the quality of meat, organic for instance, and how it is reared, makes a big difference. While substituting chicken reduced risk actually more than fish, a chicken in the 1970’s contained 9 grams of fat. Today, the average chicken has 23 grams of fat. While chicken tends to be lower in fat choosing an organic free-range chicken means even less fat and probably a better quality of meat.

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