Red Meat and Cancer: What's the Beef?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


June 20, 2013

In This Article

Still Unconvinced

Much of the skepticism about the red meat-cancer-mortality connection derives from the nature of the research demonstrating these links. By necessity, this research is observational and can't prove causality. Methodologic issues and nonsignificant findings are among the study limitations cited by those who consider the overall evidence for a connection between red meat and cancer to be weak.[28,29] Critics often point to the many variables that can confound the observed associations, such as the fact that people who eat little red meat might follow generally healthy lifestyles with respect to diet, exercise, stress reduction, avoidance of environmental exposure to toxins, and other factors.

In a recent review of 35 published studies about red meat and CRC, Alexander and Cushing[30] explored the complexity of conducting this type of research and the difficulty encountered in trying to analytically isolate the independent effects of red meat consumption. The findings of many previous studies that supported positive associations between red meat and cancer or mortality were questioned on the basis of the following:

Weakly positive, nonsignificant associations between meat consumption and CRC;

Insufficient duration of follow-up: Some large studies followed patients for as few as 6 years;

Lack of positive associations in women;

Few evaluations of potential underlying mechanisms of increased risk (eg, heme iron content), and inconsistent findings;

Limited statistical power to assess gene-environment interactions;

Lack of a universally accepted definition of red meat; sometimes inclusive of processed meat;

Residual or uncontrolled confounding variables: smoking, body mass index, total calorie consumption, alcohol intake, amount of physical exercise, education level, dietary factors (intake of fruits and vegetables, fiber, etc.); and

Lack of a clear dose-response relationship.

Red meat consumption may represent a marker for mortality risk rather than a risk factor itself

These authors concluded that "the currently available epidemiologic evidence is not sufficient to support a clear and unequivocal independent positive association between red meat intake and colorectal cancer." It has been suggested that red meat consumption represents a marker for mortality risk rather than a risk factor itself.[31]


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