Eating red meat three times a week increases risk of early death by 10%, research suggests

Eating red meat three times a week increases the risk of early death by 10 per cent, new research suggests.

High intake of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, has previously been linked with a number of health problems, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer.

However, little is known about how changes in the amount of red meat consumed can influence the risk of premature death.

To explore this further, a team of researchers from Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health in Massachusetts looked at the link between levels of red meat consumption over an eight year period with mortality during the subsequent eight years.

The researchers used data for 53,553 US registered female nurses, aged 30 to 55, from the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) and 27,916 US male health professionals, aged 40 to 75, from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS).

All of the participants were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the start of the study.

Every four years the participants were asked to complete a questionnaire where they were asked how often they ate each food in the past year, ranging from “never or less than once per month” to “six or more times a day”.

During the study period, the total number of deaths from any cause reached 14,019 (8,426 women and 5,593 men). The leading causes were cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and neurodegenerative disease.

After adjusting for age and other potentially influential factors, the researchers determined that eating both processed and unprocessed red meat 3.5 times a week or more over an eight year period was associated with a 10 per cent higher risk of death.

Similarly, increasing processed red meat intake, such as bacon and sausages, by 3.5 servings a week or more was associated with a 13 per cent higher risk of death, while increasing intake of unprocessed red meat was associated with a nine per cent higher risk.

The team also found that swapping red meat for healthier animal or plant-based alternatives was associated with a lower risk of death among both men and women.

For example, swapping out one serving per day of red meat for one serving of fish was linked to a 17 per cent lower risk of death.

As this was an observational study the authors point out some limitations, including that they did not look at the reasons for changes in red meat consumption which could have influenced the results.

However, they add that the data gathered covered a large number of people over a long follow-up period, with repeated assessment of diet and lifestyle factors, and consistent result.

The researchers say that the findings provide “a practical message to the general public of how dynamic changes in red consumption is associated with health”.

“A change in protein source or eating healthy plant-based foods such as vegetables or whole grains can improve longevity,” they write.

The study follows a call from University of Oxford researchers to implement a red meat tax on processed food like sausages and bacon.

In November 2018, the researchers claimed that raising the price of red meat by up to 80 per cent could prevent nearly 6,000 deaths a year and save the NHS more than £734m.

Globally this would mean 220,000 fewer deaths a year and savings of $40bn (£30.6bn) if every country adopted a tax based on their current levels of meat eating, the team added.