Measuring meat's effects
The study included 448,568 men and women living in ten European countries. The participants were 35 to 69 years old, were free of cancer, and had not had a stroke or heart attack upon enrollment in the study. They filled out health, lifestyle, and diet questionnaires and were monitored for an average of 12.7 years.
The researchers grouped the participants according to how much meat they ate, including red meat, (beef, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat), white meat (chicken, turkey, duck, goose, and rabbit), and processed meat (ham, bacon, sausage, prepared minced meat, and all other processed products from any meat source). Comparing the rates of medical events in each of the groups during the study, they found the following:
Compared to people who ate little or no processed meat, those who ate the most (160 grams; about 5 ounces per day or more) were 43% more likely to die from any cause. Specifically, cancer and heart disease were more likely to be causes of death among these heavy processed meat eaters.
Heavy red meat eaters had slightly higher risks of death from any cause and cancer death than people who don't eat red meat, but these differences were not statistically significant.
Being a current or former smoker increased the harmful effect of processed meat consumption on mortality, while eating large amounts of fruits and vegetables decreased it.
Eating poultry had no effect on risk of death from any cause.
A good reason to steer clear of processed meats
"The results of our analyses suggest that men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death, in particular due to cardiovascular diseases but also to cancer," the study's authors said. "In this population, reduction of processed meat consumption to less than 20 grams [0.7 ounce] per day would prevent more than 3% of all deaths."
Several previous studies done in the US also found that eating processed meat was linked to earlier death, but in those studies the harmful effect of eating red meat was stronger than in the current study.
Choose unprocessed meats for a longer life
When it comes to choosing meat, there are lots of options. Here are some ways to keep processed meat out of your diet:
- Remember your fish. Whether fresh, frozen, or canned, eating cold-water fish like salmon and herring a couple of times each week may protect you against heart disease and some cancers. Stay away from processed and deep-fried fish like fish sticks and fish patties.
- Mix it up. Eating some unprocessed red meat should not negatively effect health, especially if you balance it with lots of fruits and vegetables. Chicken and other poultry like turkey and duck are safe choices, as long as they aren't processed into luncheon meats, sausages, or hot dogs.
- Go vegetarian. Start with one lunch or dinner each week and increase to the level that feels right for you. Beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, and soy foods like tofu and tempeh are good sources of protein and are linked with a lower heart disease risk.
(BMC Med 2013;11: doi: 10.1186/1741-7015-11-63)