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Does Eating Meat Cause Cancer?

by
author image Shannon Marks
Shannon Marks started her journalism career in 1994. She was a reporter at the "Beachcomber" in Rehoboth Beach, Del., and contributed to "Philadelphia Weekly." Marks also served as a research editor, reporter and contributing writer at lifestyle, travel and entertainment magazines in New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in literature from Temple University.
Does Eating Meat Cause Cancer?
A grilled steak on a plate with potatoes and a stuffed portobello cap. Photo Credit rez-art/iStock/Getty Images
Medically Reviewed by
Brenda Spriggs, MD, MPH, MBA

Cancer is a group of diseases characterized by the development of abnormal cells that divide, invade and destroy healthy tissues. MayoClinic.com reports that cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Facts and Figures, doctors expected to diagnose about 1,596,670 new cancer cases – with the exception of skin and bladder cancers – in 2011 alone. Several studies show that populations that consume diets high in fruits and vegetables and low in animal fat and meat have lower rates of some of the most common cancers.

Studies

In 2009, the “Archives of Internal Medicine” published a report linking a diet rich in red and processed meats to cancer. Researchers from Harvard Medical School analyzed the dietary habits of nearly half a million people aged 50 to 71 over 10 years. Researchers concluded that reducing red meat consumption would have reduced cancer deaths by 11 percent for men and 16 percent for women. In response to the study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, or NCI, meat industry leaders insist that in moderation, meat consumption is safe and that the study focused on “extremes in meat consumption” rather than what most Americans eat, according to a 2009 article by “Forbes” magazine.

Quantity

MayoClinic.com suggests that consuming less meat seems to have some protective effect. In the AIM study, people who consumed at least 4 oz., or 114 g, of red meat each day had a 30 percent higher chance of dying within a decade from cancer and other causes compared to those who ate less. Processed meats, including sausage and deli meats worsened the odds. People who ate poultry or fish had a lower risk of death. Many Americans can get by on consuming just 50 g of protein a day, says MayoClinic.com. In response to concerns abroad, the U.K.’s Department of Health also drew up guidelines for how much meat is safe to eat, indicating that 70 g is appropriate, according to a 2011 article published by the “Daily Mail.”

Carcinogens

Heterocyclic amines are compounds produced during the cooking process of animal products, including chicken, beef, pork and fish. The longer the meat cooks and the higher the temperature, the more HCAs form. The National Cancer Institute reports that exposure to HCAs can cause tumors of the breast, colon, liver, skin, lung and prostate in animals. Another cancer-causing chemical, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon, results from fat droppings on an open flame, which then stick to the surface of the food.

Considerations

The meat industry insists that implicating meat in cancer development and death is, in part, a conspiracy theory. MeatSafety.org and PoultrySafety.org offer a “Cancer Prevention and Myth” fact sheet. They argue that the NCI and World Cancer Research Fund did not include studies in their research that showed no connection between processed meat and cancer, indicating that the study results are misleading. Another point of contention is that studies linking cancer to meat consumption were by a vegan and animal rights group, therefore supporting a specific, anti-meat agenda. They also point out a 2004 Harvard study that found no relationship between meat and colon cancer. Meatsafety.org is a website sponsored and run by the American Meat Institute, the nation’s oldest meat and poultry trade association.

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