Diets Rich in Red Meat Increase Risk of Cancer

Man seasoning a piece of steak

Consumption of red meat in the U.S. and other developed countries has increased steadily over the last century.

Researchers show that consumption of red meat, including beef, pork, lamb and mutton, may be associated with an increased risk of developing esophageal, lung, pancreatic and endometrial cancers.

Although red meat is not linked to mesothelioma, people undergoing treatment for the disease may have to stop eating red meat. Some patients develop problems with swallowing or chewing certain foods like red meat. Dietitians recommend that mesothelioma patients follow a diet high in proteins from legumes, cheese, eggs, chicken and fish.

Processed meat (ham, bacon, salami, sausages and other meat products) preserved by smoking, curing or treating with preservatives are also getting a bad rap with evidence showing they may be carcinogenic.

Nonhuman Sugar Found in Mammals May Be the Culprit

Researchers at the University of California in 2014 published a study that investigated why people who consume lots of red meat have a higher risk of developing certain cancers than those who eat less of those meats.

They discovered that N-glycolylneuraminic acid (Neu5Gc), a nonhuman sugar found in beef, lamb and pork products, promoted inflammation and cancer progression in mice.

“Scientists found that feeding Neu5Gc to mice engineered to be deficient in the sugar (like humans) significantly promoted spontaneous cancers,” researchers said. “The study did not involve exposure to carcinogens or artificially inducing cancers, further implicating Neu5Gc as a key link between red meat consumption and cancer.”

Researchers have shown that cancerous human tissue contains high levels of Neu5Gc.

Studies Have Linked Red Meat to Other Diseases

Over the last few years, researchers have linked consumption of red meat to conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and Type 2 diabetes.

Alzheimer’s disease

Iron, one of the key nutrients in red meat, may be linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

A 2013 UCLA study on the effects of iron and Alzheimer’s disease discovered that iron accumulation in the brain is a possible cause of the disease. Researchers tested 31 patients with Alzheimer’s disease and 68 healthy subjects.

Researchers compared the hippocampus, known to be damaged early in the development of the disease, and the thalamus, an area generally not affected until the late stages.

“The MRI technology we used in this study allowed us to determine that the increase in iron is occurring together with the tissue damage. We found that the amount of iron is increased in the hippocampus and is associated with tissue damage in patients with Alzheimer’s but not in the healthy older individuals — or in the thalamus,” said Dr. George Bartzokis, a professor of psychiatry who taught at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and senior author of the study. “So the results suggest that iron accumulation may indeed contribute to the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Cardiovascular disease

Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic in 2013 published a study about the relationship between red meat and cardiovascular disease, specifically with carnitine, a substance found in abundance in red meat and popular energy drinks.

They found that when carnitine is processed in the stomach, it turns into a compound linked to clogged arteries — a prime cause of heart attacks.

Type 2 diabetes

French researchers in 2013 studied the effects of red meat and diabetes.

They followed the diets of more than 66,000 women in Europe for more than 14 years. The study revealed that nearly 1,400 of those women were diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. Those with diets high in acidic foods were 56 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those with less acidic diets.

Drs. Guy Fagherazzi and Francoise Clavel-Chapelon, of the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health at INSERM in Paris, wrote that a “diet rich in animal protein may favor net acid intake, while most fruits and vegetables form alkaline precursors that neutralize the acidity.

Contrary to what is generally believed, most fruits — such as peaches, apples, pears, bananas and even lemons and oranges — actually reduce dietary acid load once the body has processed them.”

Processed Meats Are Also Linked to Cancer

Evidence points to a link between processed meat and the development of several diseases including lung, stomach, prostate, colon and bowel cancers.

Researchers at the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine’s Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Prevention analyzed nearly 500,000 men and women without cancer prevalence for several years. By June 2009, a total of 26,344 had died. A high consumption of processed meats was related to mortality.

“We estimated that 3.3 percent of deaths could be prevented if all participants had a processed meat consumption of less than 20 g/day. Significant associations with processed meat intake were observed for cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and ‘other causes of death,'” the 2013 study showed. “The consumption of poultry was not related to all-cause mortality.”

The Cancer Council of Australia recommends we should eat minimal amounts of any processed meat or avoid eating it altogether.

Should We Stop Eating Red Meat?

No. According to experts, eating red meat provides our body with dietary iron, zinc and vitamin B12 and can actually be good for our health, providing the meat is lean and served in small quantities.

The Cancer Council recommends that 65-100g of cooked lean red meat can be eaten three to four times weekly.

A serving of lean meat may be any of the following:

  • 65g cooked meat
  • 1/2 cup of lean ground beef
  • 2 small pork chops
  • 2 slices of roast beef

Are White Meats Better for Our Health?

White meats, such as fish, seafood and poultry, generally contains less cholesterol and saturated fat than red meats; however, they can also present a health risk if eaten in excess.

The American Heart Association advises we limit lean white meats to less than six ounces per day in total and recommends fish high in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, trout and herring) should be eaten at least twice a week.

Going without meat does not mean the food we eat should be dull and unappetizing or that we should give up our favorite meals.

Beans and legumes, such as black beans, kidney beans and chickpeas, can be used instead of meat in a number of dishes like soups, stews, meat patties and lasagnas. In fact, these types of foods are recommended for people with mesothelioma.

Vegetables, such as potatoes, pumpkin, cauliflower, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots and zucchini, can be used to create hearty soups and curries.

There are endless possibilities to create wholesome, healthy and delicious meatless meals.

  1. Gallager, J. (2013, March 7). Processed meat 'early death' link. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/health-21682779
  2. Diabetes.org. (2013). Red Meat on the Chopping Block. Retrieved from http://www.diabetes.org/research-and-practice/patient-access-to-research/red-meat-on-the-chopping.html
  3. Cancer Council NSW. (2013). Meat and Cancer Prevention – Position Statement. Retrieved from http://wiki.cancer.org.au/policy/Position_statement_-_Meat_and_cancer_prevention
  4. UC San Diego Health. (2014, December 23). Sugar Molecule Links Red Meat Consumption and Elevated Cancer Risk in Mice. Retrieved from https://health.ucsd.edu/NEWS/RELEASES/Pages/2014-12-29-sugar-molecule-in-red-meat-linked-to-cancer.aspx
  5. American Heart Foundation. (2014, December 2). Eat More Chicken, Fish and Beans. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/NutritionCenter/HealthyEating/Eat-More-Chicken-Fish-and-Beans_UCM_320278_Article.jsp
  6. Fikes, B. (2014, December 29). Why Eating Red Meat Raises Cancer Risk. Retrieved from http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2014/dec/29/red-meat-cancer-varki-neu5Gc-sialic/
  7. UCLA. (2013, August 23). UCLA Study Suggests Iron Is at Core of Alzheimer's Disease. Retrieved from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ucla-study-suggests-that-iron-247864
  8. Lajous, M., Tondeur, L., Fagherazzi, G., Lauzon-Guillain, B., Boutron-Ruaualt, C. and Clavel-Chapelon, F. (2011, December 9). Processed and Unprocessed Red Meat Consumption and Incident Type 2 Diabetes Among French Women. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3241336/

Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

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