A new 28-year study has revealed that eating red meat increases the risk of cancer death by 10 percent and heart disease death by 16 percent.
According to research published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine on Monday, the more red meat you consume, the higher the impact to health, including a 12 percent greater risk of premature death overall.
The analysis conducted by scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, USA used data from two studies involving 121,342 men and women, who were surveyed on their diet and health, and then monitored closely for progress.
Other lifestyle factors, such as weight, physical activity, and family history were also taken into account.
Over the course of the study, there were 23,926 deaths reported among participants, with 5,910 of those being a result of cardiovascular disease and 9,464 from cancer.
“When you have these numbers in front of you, it’s pretty staggering,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Frank Hu, a professor of medicine at Harvard University.
The results showed that just one extra serving of processed meat a week (equivalent to one hot dog or two rashers of bacon) raised the risk of premature death by 20 percent, while unprocessed meat increased it by 13 percent.
Simply replacing red meat with alternative protein sources such as fish, soy-based products, nuts and legumes, were found to lower the risk of death by 20 percent.
“This study provides clear evidence that regular consumption of red meat, especially processed meat, contributes substantially to premature death,” said Dr Hu.
“On the other hand, choosing more healthful sources of protein in place of red meat can confer significant health benefits by reducing chronic disease morbidity (illness) and mortality.”
The researchers also concluded that simply halving red meat consumption could have prevented the deaths of 9.3 percent of the men and 7.6 percent of the women in the study.
In response to these findings, The World Cancer Research Fund has recommended cutting out processed meats from your diet altogether, while limiting the consumption of unprocessed red meat to 500g per week.
“This study strengthens the body of evidence which shows a link between red meat and chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease,” said the charity’s Deputy Head of Science, Dr Rachel Thompson.
“The study calculates that lives would be saved if people replaced red meat with healthy protein sources such as fish, poultry, nuts and legumes. We would like to see more people replacing red meat with these type of foods.”
But not everyone agrees with the results of the study, or the recommendation that red meat be cut out of diets.
Dr Carrie Ruxton from the UK's Meat Advisory Panel (MAP), an expert body funded by the meat industry, said that meat and meat products were sources of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, selenium, B vitamins and vitamin D.
“Red meat can still be eaten as part of a balanced diet,” she said, “but go for the leaner cuts and use healthier cooking methods such as grilling.
“This paper should not be used to dissuade people from reducing their current intake of red meat when it provides essential nutrients that are required as part of a healthy balanced diet.”