People who regularly consume red meat have a higher risk of dying from any cause, from cancer, or from a cardiovascular disease, researchers from Harvard School of Public Health reported in Archives of Internal Medicine. The authors added that those who switched over to other sources of protein, such as nuts, soya, poultry, fish and legumes are likely to lower their risk of mortality. The risk was found to be particularly high among regular processed meat consumers.

Lead author, research fellow at HSPH (Harvard School of Public Health), An Pan, said:

“Our study adds more evidence to the health risks of eating high amounts of red meat, which has been associated with type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and certain cancers in other studies.”

An Pan and team gathered data on 37,698 adult males for a total of 22 years from the Health Professional Follow-up Study, as well as 83,644 adult females from the Nurses’ Health Study for up to 28 years. All those observed had no cardiovascular disease or cancer when the study started. They completed questionnaires regarding their dietary habits every four years.

In the two studies, a total of 23,926 deaths were registered, including 5,910 from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer. The team calculated that those who regularly consumed red meat had a higher risk of mortality – especially those with high unprocessed meat consumption.

Regular consumption of red meat is linked to higher mortality risk

People who consumed one serving of unprocessed red meat every day – the size of a deck of cards per serving – were found to have a 13% higher mortality risk. Daily consumption of processed red meat raised mortality risk by 20%.

The specific causes of mortality were broken down as follows:

  • 18% of cardiovascular mortality linked to daily unprocessed red meat consumption
  • 21% of cardiovascular mortality linked to daily processed red meat consumption
  • 10% of cancer mortality linked to daily unprocessed red meat consumption
  • 16% of cancer mortality linked to daily processed red meat consumption

The authors stress that their calculations had already taken into account other factors which affect cancer, cardiovascular and all cause mortality, such as physical activity, body weight, age, etc.

Processed meat contains substances which have been associated with a higher risk of developing cancer, cardiovascular disease, and some other chronic illnesses. Examples of these substances include:

  • heme iron
  • nitrites
  • saturated fat
  • sodium
  • some carcinogens that are formed during the cooking process

Those who switched one serving of total red meat with another healthy protein alternative could reduce their mortality risk by..:

  • 7% if they switched to fish
  • 10% if they switched to legumes
  • 10% if they switched to low-fat dairy
  • 14% if they switched to poultry
  • 14% if they switched to whole grains
  • 19% if they switched to nuts

If, during the research period, all participants had eaten less than 0.5 red meat servings per day, 7.6% of female and 9.3% of males deaths could have been prevented.

Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at HSPH, said:

“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death.

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.”

Written by Christian Nordqvist