A daily meal of hot dogs, bacon or hamburgers raises the risk of dying from heart disease or cancer by as much as 21 percent, according to the largest assessment of the health effects from consuming red meat.
The study released today by the Archives of Internal Medicine adds to evidence of health risks associated with eating large amounts of red meat, which has been linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancers, said An Pan, the lead study author and a research fellow at the Harvard University School of Public Health in Boston.
Still, red meat can be part of a healthy diet, said Dean Ornish, who wrote an accompanying editorial.
“It’s not all or nothing,” said Ornish, clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and the author of the book on healthy eating, “The Spectrum,” in a March 9 telephone interview. “To the degree you make red meat more of a treat or more of a condiment and substitute other things for it, you’re going to look better, feel better, lose weight and gain health.”
More than 75 percent of the $2.6 trillion spent each year on health care in the U.S. is for chronic diseases, he wrote in his editorial. Eating less red meat may reduce the incidence of these diseases and lower health care costs, Ornish wrote.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the American Meat Institute Foundation and the National Pork Board said that red meat is a healthy part of a well-balanced diet.
“The scientific evidence to support the role of lean beef in a healthy, balanced diet is strong and there is nothing in this study that changes that fact,” said Shalene McNeill, executive director of human nutrition research at the Centennial, Colorado-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, in an e-mailed statement. “Overall, lifestyle patterns including a healthy diet and physical activity, not consumption of any individual food, have been shown to affect mortality.”
Ceci Snyder, a spokeswoman for the Des Moines, Iowa-based National Pork Board and a dietitian, said when people overeat any food they usually have other bad behaviors.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one cause for disease,” she said in a telephone interview today. “People should eat more fruits and vegetables definitely. People should exercise more. When they villainize one food, it doesn’t help people too much.”
Researchers in the study included 37,698 men from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and 83,644 women in the Nurses’ Health Study. Their diets were assessed by questionnaires given every four years.
The researchers found that those who increased consumption of unprocessed red meat by one serving each day had an 18 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease and a 10 percent greater risk of dying from cancer, while those who ate one more daily serving of processed red meat had a 21 percent higher risk of dying from heart disease and a 16 percent increased risk of dying from cancer.
Substituting one serving of a protein like fish, nuts and poultry for the red meat lowered a person’s chance of dying from those diseases, the researchers said.
Almost 24,000 people died in the two studies, of those 5,910 were from heart disease and 9,464 from cancer.
The Harvard study’s results aren’t reliable because the data relied on self-reporting of diet and weren’t produced by a randomized trial, Betsy Booren, the Washington-based American Meat Institute Foundation’s director of scientific affairs, said today in an e-mail.
“All of these studies struggle to disentangle other lifestyle and dietary habits from meat and processed meat and admit that they can’t do it well enough to use their conclusions to accurately recommend people change their dietary habits,” she said. “What the total evidence has shown, and what common sense suggests, is that a balanced diet and a healthy body weight are the keys to good health.”