The Cooper Institute

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH


Meat Intake, Cancer Risk, and Politics: What’s the Connection?

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Eat better

Thursday, Jun 16, 2016

To say that science and politics are a bad combination is a major understatement. On January 7, 2016 the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) were published after a significant delay. In the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee Report which preceded publication of the DGA, one of the recommendations was that adults should decrease their intake of red meat and processed meat. The reason for this recommendation was due to the strong association between red/processed meat intake and risk of colorectal cancer and other serious health conditions. However, due to intense lobbying by the meat industry and other groups, this science-based recommendation was not included in the new DGA! Many scientists and non-scientists alike were quite dismayed that politics and special interests buried this important issue. Thus, I thought it would be of benefit to cover some of the evidence supporting the ‘missing’ recommendation that Americans should decrease their intake of red and processed meats.
In a 2012 paper published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 38,698 men and 83,644 women completed a food frequency questionnaire at baseline, then every 4 years (Pan et al., 2012). All subjects were initially free of disease. During nearly 3 million person-years* of follow-up, a total of 5910 and 9464 deaths occurred from cardiovascular disease and cancer respectively.  After controlling for other factors, the researchers found that each 1 serving per day increase in red meat consumption, the risks of cardiovascular and cancer death were increased by 20% and 15% respectively. Furthermore, the authors concluded that substituting 1 serving per day of fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy, or whole grains for 1 serving of red meat was associated with a ~13% overall reduced risk of death.
In a study of nearly half a million European men and women that were followed for an average period of 12.7 years, a high intake of processed meat was significantly related to an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease (CVD) death (Rohrmann et al., 2013). Those who consumed 6 oz or more per day of processed meat were 43% and 70% more likely to die from cancer and CVD respectively, compared to those who consumed less than 1 oz per day.   
In October, 2015 a conference was held in Lyon, France, to evaluate the relationship of red and processed meat intake on cancer risk. Twenty-two leading scientists from around the world reviewed the best published studies on this topic. The group concluded that there is sufficient evidence that high processed meat consumption is related to risk of colorectal and stomach cancer. The group classified red meat consumption as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” with evidence of a significant association between red meat consumption and colorectal, prostate, and pancreatic cancer.

So while The Cooper Institute supports the 2015-2020 DGA, we also suggest that individuals should limit their intake of red and processed meat. This does not mean that you need to completely eliminate these from your diet, but you would likely benefit from decreasing your intake of the following:
  • Beef, pork, lamb
  • Hot dogs
  • Bologna
  • Bacon
  • Sausage
  • Pepperoni
  • Salami
  • Beef jerky
  • Deli meats
  • Smoked meats (brisket, barbeque, etc)
At the same time, most people would strongly benefit by increasing their intake of plant-based foods (nuts and seeds, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes), fatty fish, and low-fat dairy. 

To learn more about nutrition, physical activity, healthy eating and risk of chronic disease, take our Nutrition for Health and Fitness, Weight Loss StrategiesOlder Adults, and/or Personal Trainer Education courses. You need not be a health and fitness professional to take these courses; the general public is always welcome to attend!

*person-years are calculated by taking the number of subjects and multiplying by the number of years of follow-up.  Example: if 100 people are followed for an average of 10 years, then we have 100 persons x 10 years = 1000 person-years of follow-up.

International Agency for Research on Cancer. Volume 114. Consumption of red meat and processed meat. IARC Working Group. Lyon; 6-13 September, 2015.  

Pan, A., Sun, Q., Bernstein, A. M., Schulze, M. B., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J., … Hu, F. B. (2012). Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results from Two Prospective Cohort Studies. Archives of Internal Medicine172(7), 555–563.

Rohrmann, S., Overvad, K., Bueno-de-Mesquita, H. B., Jakobsen, M. U., Egeberg, R., Tjønneland, A., … Linseisen, and J. (2013). Meat consumption and mortality - results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. BMC Medicine11, 63.