“Small quantities of processed meat such as bacon, sausages or salami can increase the likelihood of dying early by a fifth,” The Daily Telegraph reported today.
The news is based on a large study that looked at the diets and health of over 120,000 people over periods of up to 28 years, assessing their diets every four years and following the development of any heart problems or cancer.
Researchers found that regularly eating red meat, in particular processed meat, was associated with a significantly higher risk of dying prematurely. Each 85 gram daily serving of unprocessed red meat (equivalent to about three thin slices of roast beef) was associated with a 13% increase in death risk during the study period, while one daily serving of processed meat (one hot dog or two slices of bacon) was associated with a 20% increased risk.
The researchers then input their data into a theoretical model, which estimated that 9.3% of early deaths in men and 7.6% in women in the study could have been prevented if all the participants had consumed fewer than 0.5 servings a day (about 42 gram a day) of red meat.
This was a well-conducted study but it could not conclusively prove that red meat raises the risk of premature death, although the results are of key interest and the evidence is mounting on the issue. According to UK dietary surveys, 4 in 10 men and 1 in 10 women eat more than 90 grams of red and processed meat a day. The Department of Health recommends that people eating more than 90 grams of red and processed meat a day limit their intake to no more than 70 grams a day in cooked weight. That is about the size of a large beefburger.
The study was carried out by researchers from a number of research institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health in the US. It was funded by the US National Institutes of Health, and the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, Archives of Internal Medicine.
This research was widely reported in the media, with several reports including comments from independent experts. The Daily Mail also included some critical comments on the research from the industry funded Meat Advisory Panel. The Sun’s claim that red meat kills was misleading.
This was a prospective cohort study to investigate the association between red meat intake and early death in two large groups of men and women. It looked at both deaths from all causes and deaths from heart disease and cancer.
The researchers point out that red meat consumption has been associated with increased risk of chronic diseases but its association with the risk of mortality (death) remains uncertain.
The researchers analysed data from two large US cohort studies of health and lifestyle that took place in the US between 1976 and 2008. One of these studies examined outcomes in a range of healthcare professionals and the other only in nurses. In these studies, health questionnaires were sent to participants every two years to collect health-related information, with food questionnaires sent out every four years.