Results prompt top cardiologist to stress that red meat, human disease, and global warming are related
by Craig Weatherby
In her 1971 bestseller, Diet for Small Planet, Frances Moore Lappé made a strong factual case that if Americans were to eat less meat they'd aid the environment and ease demand for water and oil.
The intervening years have produced a growing pile of evidence that red and processed meats raise the risk of colorectal cancers significantly.
Ms. Lappé's case against excess red meat has been further bolstered by the findings of the largest ever study looking for meat-health links.
And in speaking about the study, a top cardiologist adds global warming to the list of evils associated with diets overly high in red and processed meats… diets like the average American's.
Largest study to date links red meat to death and cancer risk
Red meat intake has been linked to cancer and cardiovascular disease in many previous studies.
Three years ago, a large study linked red meat to higher cancer risk, and affirmed the safety of fish.
We reported on that 2006 study—and the suspected reasons why red and processed meats might promote cancer—in “New Cancer-Risk Findings Rank Seafood and Poultry Far Safer than Processed Meats.”
Those findings are affirmed by an analysis of data from the largest population conducted to date, in which researchers at the U.S. National Cancer Institute analyzed data collected as part of the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study.
In 1995, researchers sent diet-and-lifestyle questionnaires to 3.5 million members of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons).
Ten years later, a research team at the National Cancer Institute analyzed results from half a million participants in the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study (Sinha R et al. 2009).
When the one-fifth of men and women who ate the most red meat were compared to the one-fifth who ate the least red meat, the heavy meat eaters were about 33 percent more likely to have died before the end of the 10-year study.
The men and women who ate the most processed red meat were about 20 percent more likely to have died.
And the risk of dying from cancer was 21 percent higher among those who ate the most red meat, and about 12 percent higher among those who ate the most processed meat.
(The people who consumed at least 2,000 calories a day ate also about five ounces of red meat a day… the equivalent of eating just over one and one-half Quarter Pounders or Big Macs a day.)
As the researchers concluded, “Red and processed meat intakes were associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular disease mortality” (Sinha R et al. 2009).
Fish and white meat exonerated by findings
Unlike the risks linked to red and processed meats, heavy consumption of chicken, turkey, and fish did not appear to raise cancer or death risk.
In fact, those who ate the most chicken, turkey, and fish had slightly lower odds of dying than those who ate the least.
The new meat-and-health findings add weight to recommendations issued in a 2008 report by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).
In Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective, the WCRF/AICR recommended that people limit their consumption of red meat to no more than 300 g (11 oz) per week, and limit total meat consumption to less than 500 g (18 oz) per week.
Importantly, the WCRF/AICR added that very little of this meat should be processed (Wiseman M 2009).
The WCIF/AICR report defines red meat as beef, pork, lamb, and goat and processed meat as meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or addition of chemical preservatives.
Top cardiologist links meat, health, and climate change
Speaking at the European Society of Cardiology's August 2009 conference, professor emeritus Ole Faergeman told journalists that release of the new study affirms his conviction that eating lots of red meat promotes cancer and heart disease.
And he noted that production of conventional, grain-fed livestock is estimated to account for about 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Faergeman called on the European Society of Cardiology to recommend reducing the average intake of red meat to 300 grams per week (This equals 10.7 ounces, or about three standard, palm-sized servings).
And as he told reporters last month, “We'd then be helping prevent heart disease and global warming.”
Linking global warming and coronary artery disease, Faergeman noted that people who use fossil fuels frequently—such as to drive to work and blow or mow leaves with gas engines—are less active and produce more greenhouse gasses.
Conventional livestock raising results in release of three greenhouse gases:
- Nitrogen oxide released from standard petrochemical fertilizers on fields.
- Methane released from both ends of cattle and pigs.
- Carbon released from trees and other plants when forests are cleared to grow grass, soy, or grains for animal feed.
We think that other physicians and scientists who understand the climate issue should use their positions to publicize diet-climate-health connections.
- Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, et al. Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Arch Intern Med 2009;169:562–571.
- Wiseman M. The second World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research expert report. Food, nutrition, physical activity, and the prevention of cancer: a global perspective. Proc Nutr Soc. 2008 Aug;67(3):253-6. Epub 2008 May 1. Review.
- Fricker J. Cardiologists in Pole Position to Fight Climate change. ESC Congress News. August 29, 2009. Accessed at http://www.escardio.org/congresses/esc-2009/news/Pages/Perils-climate.aspx
- Cross AJ, Leitzmann MF, Gail MH, Hollenbeck AR, Schatzkin A, Sinha R. A prospective study of red and processed meat intake in relation to cancer risk. PLoS Med. 2007 Dec;4(12):e325.
- Larsson SC, Bergkvist L, Wolk A. Processed meat consumption, dietary nitrosamines and stomach cancer risk in a cohort of Swedish women. Int J Cancer. 2006 Aug 15;119(4):915-9.