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Red meat eaten daily increases risk of early death, study says

TORONTO – As a new study sounds warning bells that even moderate consumption of red meat could be bad for your heart, the beef industry in Canada is casting doubt on its findings in an attempt to reassure consumers.

New research out of Harvard University’s School of Public Health singled out red meat, linking consumption to an increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and even cancer.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the study which traced 37,700 men, and more than 83,000 women and their eating habits over three decades, tells readers that substituting red meat for a serving of other sources of protein, such as fish, poultry, nuts or lentils lowered the risk.

The respondents’ health and diets were assessed through questionnaires every four years and they were free of any cardiovascular disease and cancer at the baseline.

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But the findings as the study progressed are startling.

A single daily serving of unprocessed red meat – about the size of a deck of cards – was associated with a 13 per cent increased risk of death, while one daily serving of processed meat was linked to a 20 per cent increased risk.

A serving could be a few ounces of hamburger, some pepperoni slices on a pizza or some sausage links to accompany eggs in the morning.

During the study period, 23,926 people died – 5,910 from cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer, according to Frank Hu, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard.

The authors say that red meat, especially processed meat – hot dogs and bacon, for example – contain ingredients such as saturated fat, sodium, nitrites and certain carcinogens that are formed during cooking. These ingredients contribute to chronic disease, the study notes.

“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” said Hu.

But Canada Beef, an organization representing domestic and global beef marketing, called the Harvard study “flawed” with results that have “little significance” to Canadian meat eaters.

“Canadians can continue to enjoy lean Canadian beef with confidence,” the organization said in a statement in response to the study’s findings.

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The statement says Canadians eat red meat within national guidelines and won’t face health-related repercussions.

“Red meat continues to be a healthy part of a balanced diet and nutrition decisions should be based on the total body of evidence, not on single studies that include weak and inconsistent evidence and stand in contrast to other research and to the dietary guidelines for Canadians,” said Karine Gale, nutrition program manager at Canada Beef.

Gale noted that the study was based on self reports, which could be misleading, and focused on respondents who tended to be less healthy than those who ate less red meat.