Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY
Hamburgers and hot dogs are getting even more grilling.
A new study indicates that eating unprocessed red meat (hamburger, pork, roast beef, lamb) and processed meats (bacon, hot dogs, bologna, sausage) may increase a person's risk of premature death and raise their risk of death from heart disease and cancer.
Conversely, substituting other foods such as fish, poultry, nuts and beans for red meat may lower a person's risk of premature death, the analysis suggests.
Other studies have linked eating red meat and processed meat to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers (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 the study's lead author, An Pan of the Harvard School of Public Health. But, he says, this type of study shows association, which doesn't necessarily mean a direct cause.
Pan and colleagues analyzed the diet, health and death data on 37,698 men and 83,644 women.
To determine the risk of eating unprocessed red meat or processed meat, the researchers factored out other qualities of life, including age, weight, physical activity and family history of heart disease, and dietary habits, such as intake of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, nuts, legumes, dairy products, fish and poultry.
Among the findings published online Monday in 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% increased risk in premature death; one serving a day of processed red meat (one hot dog or two slices of bacon) was associated with a 20% increased risk of premature death.
Using a statistic model, the researchers estimated that replacing one serving a day of red meat with one serving of fish would decrease the chances of premature death by 7%; replacing it with poultry would decrease the risk by 14%; nuts, 19%; beans, 10%; low-fat dairy, 10%; and whole grains, 14%.
"The message we want to communicate is it would be great if you could reduce your 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.
Beef industry objects
But the beef industry says the study doesn't prove red meat is the dietary villain.
"Once again, what we are seeing here is an observational study that's limited because it can't establish cause and effect," says registered dietitian Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition research for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "The most striking thing about this study is those who were eating higher intakes of red meat also were eating more calories, were less physically active, were more likely to smoke and ate fewer fruits, vegetables and whole grains."
Pan says those factors were taken into consideration to try to eliminate their influence, "but certainly, it is possible that other unmeasured or residual confounding effects from lifestyle factors exist."
Robert Eckel, a former president of the American Heart Association, says the group does not set a limit on consumption of lean red meat but promotes an overall heart-healthy diet: "A small serving (about 3 ounces) of lean red meat several times a week can be added to an overall heart-healthy dietary pattern without concern."
Marji McCullough, a nutrition epidemiologist for the American Cancer Society, calls the study "important" because "it shows that consuming red meat and processed meat increases the risk of death from all causes," not just colorectal or other cancers.
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Nanci Hellmich, USA TODAY