Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Study Links Red Meat To Cancer, Heart Disease


A lot of research has shown that eating red meat can increase your risk of heart disease and certain cancers, especially colon cancer. Now, a large study suggests that eating a lot of those juicy burgers and steaks may actually shorten your life. NPR's Patti Neighmond looked into what that study means for meat lovers.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: This was a large study, over half a million men and women over the age of 50. They answered questions about specifics of their diet, and then researchers documented who died over the next 10 years.

They found that people who ate the most red meat - that's beef, lamb and pork -were 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease or any type of cancer.

While the study's biggest weakness is that it relied on people's memories of what they'd eaten over the previous year, epidemiologist Michael Thun, with the American Cancer Society, says the findings support what research has found over the last 20 years: Limit the amount of red meat in your diet.

Dr.�MICHAEL THUN (Epidemiologist, American Cancer Society): Choose fish, poultry or beans as an alternative. And when you eat meat, eat smaller portions, select leaner cuts, and don't consider it the main course every day or even more than one time a day. Consider it a treat.

NEIGHMOND: Which doesn't mean eliminate all red meat from your diet. While that wouldn't be a bad idea, Thun says it's okay to eat meat but, like so much else, in moderation. A few times a week is probably fine. A few times a month is better. And when you do eat red meat, he says, be careful how you cook it.

Dr.�THUN: When you heat meat, and particularly fat, at very high temperatures, you can produce a number of chemical groups that damage DNA.

NEIGHMOND: So the American Cancer Society recommends baking, broiling or poaching instead of frying or grilling. And if you do grill, they say, try microwaving meat first to reduce the fat content, and then put it on the grill.

Another problem the study found: processed meat, meats which are preserved, salted, smoked. The message here is simple, says nutritionist Barry Popkin from the University of North Carolina. Avoid them or at least, cut way back.

Dr.�BARRY POPKIN (Nutritionist, University of North Carolina): There are a bunch of people that consume a pepperoni pizza daily or a hot dog a couple times a week, and they need to really cut that down to once a month.

NEIGHMOND: In the study, the women who ate the most red meat were more likely to die from heart disease than men who ate a lot of red meat. Researchers don't know why. Epidemiologist Michael Thun says it's important to remember the risk associated with red meat is a lot less, even in fairly large quantities, than risks that result from other lifestyle choices like, for example, smoking.

Dr.�THUN: And smoking, depending on the age at which you're doing it and how long you've done it, is, say, tripling the death rate from all causes.

NEIGHMOND: Compare that tripling of risk, a 300 percent increase in death, to what the study found about red meat, a 30 percent increase.

Dr.�THUN: I mean, smoking is in a class by itself, approached only, really, by moderate to severe obesity.

NEIGHMOND: Researchers say the take-home message from the study is clear. When you do eat meat, make it mostly fish or poultry. In the study, people who ate more of these meats had the lowest death rate. Researchers don't know whether that was because something in the white meat was beneficial, like omega-3 fatty acids in fish, for example, or whether eating white meat just meant people ate less red meat. Patti Neighmond, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 26, 2009 at 11:56 AM EDT
We said, "Compare that tripling of risk, a 300 percent increase in death [among smokers], to what the study found about red meat -- a 30 percent increase." In fact, a tripling of risk is a 200 percent increase.
Patti Neighmond
Award-winning journalist Patti Neighmond is NPR's health policy correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.