Harvard red meat cancer study under fire

By Mike Stones

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Red meat, Nutrition

Red meat is part of a balanced diet, according to the British Heart Foundation
Red meat is part of a balanced diet, according to the British Heart Foundation
Meat industry experts and health campaigners have both questioned the results of a Harvard Medical School study which claimed to show that eating a diet high in red meat shortened life expectancy.

The research – based on 28 years of research involving more than 120,000 people throughout the US – claimed to show that eating red meat increased the risk of cancer and cardio vascular disease.

Adding an extra portion of unprocessed red meat to a person's daily diet increased the risk of death by 13%, according to the research. An extra portion was the equivalent to two rashers of bacon or one hot dog.

The risk of fatal cardiovascular disease was increased by 18% and of cancer mortality by 10%. The risks were even higher for processed meat.

But Dr Carrie Ruxton from the Meat Advisory Panel said that the study was observational, not controlled, and so cannot be used to determine cause and effect.

Essential nutrients

“In summary, this paper should not be used to persuade people from reducing their current intake of red meat when it provides essential nutrients that are required as part of a healthy balanced diet,”​ said Dr Ruxton.

Average meat consumption in the UK is already in line with government recommendations, addressed last year by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, she said. “For most people, red meat consumption is not associated with health risk and does not need to be reduced. Red meat is an important source of iron, zinc and vitamin D and has a role in a healthy, balanced diet.”

Nick Allen, sector director of  red meat producers’ organisation English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX), said: “It is disappointing to see the headlines being dominated by yet another story linking red meat with health problems, and in this case an increased risk of mortality.

“The conclusion that swapping a portion of red meat for poultry or fish each week may lower mortality risk was based only on a theoretical model. This conflicts with evidence from controlled trials, which have suggested that a simple switch from red meat to white meat or fish doesn’t provide the benefits anticipated by the theoretical model.”

Other factors, such as body weight, fat intakes, physical activity and fruit/vegetable consumption are also important, he said.

Balanced diet

The study was carried out in the US, where meat consumption per capita is higher than in the UK, said Allen. “The majority of the UK population does not consume more than the recommended daily amount of 70g per day. Lean red meat is extremely nutritious and can be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy, balanced diet, advice which is reinforced by the Government’s official EatWell plate.”

Victoria Taylor, the British Heart Foundation’s senior heart health dietician, said: “The study does not differentiate between leaner and fattier cuts of meat, so it would be useful to know if the association is the same when this is taken into account.”

Red meat can still be eaten as part of a balanced diet, she said, advising consumers to choose the leaner cuts and healthier cooking methods such as grilling.

“If you eat processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages or burgers several times a week, add variation to your diet by substituting these for other protein sources such as fish, poultry, beans or lentils,”​ said Taylor.

The study Red Meat Consumption and Mortality was published online by the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. To read the report summary click here​.

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Grass fed beef

Posted by Millie,

Grass-fed beef is much higher in omega 3 fats and lower in omega 6 fats than grain-fed beef.

The same is true of grass-fed dairy.

It is possible that the omega 3 fats in the grass-fed beef (which is the type from this study, but not the type most common in the US) is responsible for the results?

We already know that omega 3 fats do effect mood from studies with fish oil.

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Balance of good and bad

Posted by Mauricio Murillo,

Who is right? The nutritionist whose advice is to eat 70g of meat daily? Or your body - which is telling you not to eat so much meat?

We all know that meat is delicious and full of nutrients. But have you checked what toxins it contains? It is a personal decision about whether or not to poison your body.

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