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Study: Red meat linked to risk of premature death

Chicago style hot dog.

Chicago style hot dog.

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Updated: April 15, 2012 8:10AM

A new study indicates that eating unprocessed red meat such as hamburger, pork, roast beef or lamb and processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, bologna or sausage can increase a person’s risk of premature death and raise the risk of death from heart disease and cancer.

The analysis also suggests that substituting other foods — such as fish, poultry, nuts and beans for red meat — might lower the risk of premature death.

Other studies have linked eating red meat and processed meat to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer and premature death.

“This new study provides further compelling evidence that high amounts of red meat may boost the risk of premature death,” says study author An Pan of the Harvard School of Public Health.

But he adds that the link isn’t proof that meat causes early death.

Pan and colleagues analyzed the diet, health and death data on 37,698 men and 83,644 women. Participants completed questionnaires about their diets every four years. During the study follow-up period of more than two decades, nearly 24,000 of the participants died, including 5,910 from heart disease and 9,464 from cancer.

To determine the risk of eating unprocessed red meat or processed meat, the researchers factored out other lifestyle factors, including age, weight, physical activity and family history of heart disease, and dietary factors, such as intake of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, nuts, legumes, dairy products, fish and poultry.

Among the findings published Monday by the Archives of Internal Medicine:

Eating one serving a day of unprocessed red meat — about the size of a deck of cards— was associated with a 13 percent increased risk in premature death.

Eating one serving a day of processed red meat — one hot dog or two slices of bacon — was associated with a 20 percent increased risk of premature death.

The researchers estimated that replacing one serving a day of red meat with one serving of fish would decrease premature death by 7 percent.

Replacing it with poultry would decrease the risk by 14 percent, they said; with nuts, 19 percent; beans, 10 percent; low-fat dairy, 10 percent; and whole grains, 14 percent.

“The message we want to communicate is it would be great if you could reduce your intake of red meat consumption to half a serving a day or two to three servings a week and severely limit processed red meat intake,” Pan says.

He says the sodium and nitrites in processed red meat might explain the relatively higher risk found in processed compared with unprocessed red meat.

Marji McCullough, a nutrition epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society, says, “We’ve known for a long time that eating high amounts of red meat or processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer and possibly other cancers. This study is important because it shows that consuming red meat and processed meat increases the risk of death from all causes.”

She says there is no magic number in terms of amount of red meat that you can safely consume, but “eating it no more than a few times a week would be a place to start.”

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