Halve Your Burger; Lower Your Risk for Earlier Death

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Yesterday, a study suggesting your hot dog may lead to an earlier death made a lot of news.  

Many stories focused on the grim finding that red and processed red meat increases the chances we will die earlier from cancer, heart disease or other causes. But the study authors also provided positive findings for prevention, and one that strengthens the recommendations of AICR: replacing that daily hot dog with a healthier protein lowered the risk of an earlier death by almost ten percent.

The study was from Harvard University and it was a large one, with data drawn from about 120,000 participants. Everyone was cancer and heart disease free when the study began, either in 1980 or 1986.

The study was published online yesterday in Archives of Internal Medicine.

Participants filled out questionnaires about their eating habits at the start of the study and then every four years.

The study focused on red meats and mortality, looking at death from any cause, heart disease, and cancer. After tracking participants for 22 or 26 years, the study found that one daily serving of unprocessed red meat linked to a 13 percent increased risk of death during the course of the study. One daily serving of processed red meat, such as a hot dog or two slices of bacon, linked to a 20 percent increased risk

For cancer specifically, the increase in mortality risk was 10 percent for unprocessed red meat and 16 percent for processed red meat. Earlier death for heart disease was 18 percent and 21 percent increase in risk, respectively.

Then the authors did some calculations on what would happen if the participants had substituted another protein source for their one serving of daily red meat. Replacing a daily red meat serving with poultry linked to a 14 percent lower risk, a 19 percent lower risk for nuts, 7 percent lower risk for fish and 10 percent for legumes.

The study estimated that 9 percent of the men and 8 percent of the women could have prevented their early deaths if they had eaten fewer than half a serving per day of red meat.

The findings add to the body of evidence on red meats and cancer. AICR’s latest Continuous Update Project (CUP) report released last year concluded that consuming too much red and processed meat increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

Although the Harvard study grouped all cancers together, the AICR report was similar to the study in that increased risk for colorectal cancer was greater for processed meats than red meats, ounce for ounce. (The AICR report looked at the body of evidence on all processed meats; this Harvard study focused on red processed meats.)

You can read about the findings of the CUP Colorectal Report here, and why red and processed meats may increase the risk of cancer.

That’s why for cancer prevention, AICR recommends eating 18 ounces or less of red meat per week and eating processed meats rarely or not at all.

For red and processed meat substitution ideas, visit our New American Challenge #4.


Author: Mya Nelson

Mya R. Nelson is at American Institute for Cancer Research, where she writes about the research in the field.

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