Red Meat and Cancer: What's the Beef?

Laura A. Stokowski, RN, MS


June 20, 2013

In This Article

Will Red Meat 'Kill Us'?

One estimate says that the US per-capita daily consumption of meat is 128 g (4.5 oz), of which 80 g (2.8 oz) is red meat,[36] while other estimates suggest that red meat consumption is considerably higher. Although red meat consumption has plateaued somewhat in the United States, it is on the rise throughout much of the developed world, despite sensational headlines warning of the dangers of continuing to eat so much red meat.

The US study by Pan and colleagues found that substituting fish, poultry, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains for red meat in the diet was associated with significantly reduced mortality. The EPIC investigators commented that reduction of processed meat consumption to less than 20 g/day would prevent about 3% of all deaths.

Where does all of this leave clinicians and their patients? Should we, for example, advise patients at risk for CRC, or recurrence of CRC, to reduce their intake of red meat and to stop eating processed red meats altogether? The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) believes that the time has come to do so. Their recommendation is to "limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork, and lamb) and avoid processed meats." To reduce risk for cancer, the AICR suggests eating no more than 18 oz (cooked weight) per week of red meat (beef, pork, lamb) and avoid processed red meats (ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs, and sausages).[37] The National Comprehensive Cancer Network also recommends limiting red and processed meat in the diet of cancer survivors.[38]

On the other hand, do the nutritional benefits of red meat, along with the methodologic limitations of the recent red meat studies (and the fear of backlash from industry), justify making no recommendations of this kind? Conducting more research to more closely identify the mechanisms involved in the development of cancer with high consumption of processed meats, or of red meat cooked in certain ways, is an alternative. More research might also clarify the gene-environment interactions operating when high consumers of red meat develop cancer or die prematurely. Like everything else that is "bad for you," people will have to make their own choices, but we should at least make them informed ones.


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