Red meat and processed meat have been associated with carcinogenesis at several anatomic sites, but no prospective study has examined meat intake in relation to a range of malignancies. We investigated whether red or processed meat intake increases cancer risk at a variety of sites.
Methods and Findings
The National Institutes of Health (NIH)-AARP (formerly the American Association for Retired Persons) Diet and Health Study is a cohort of approximately 500,000 people aged 50–71 y at baseline (1995–1996). Meat intake was estimated from a food frequency questionnaire administered at baseline. Cox proportional hazards regression was used to estimate hazard ratios and 95% confidence intervals within quintiles of red and processed meat intake. During up to 8.2 y of follow-up, 53,396 incident cancers were ascertained. Statistically significant elevated risks (ranging from 20% to 60%) were evident for esophageal, colorectal, liver, and lung cancer, comparing individuals in the highest with those in the lowest quintile of red meat intake. Furthermore, individuals in the highest quintile of processed meat intake had a 20% elevated risk for colorectal and a 16% elevated risk for lung cancer.
Both red and processed meat intakes were positively associated with cancers of the colorectum and lung; furthermore, red meat intake was associated with an elevated risk for cancers of the esophagus and liver.
Using data from a large cohort study, Amanda Cross and colleagues found that both red and processed meat intakes were positively associated with cancers of the colorectum and lung.
Every year, there are more than 10 million new cases of cancer around the world. These cases are not spread evenly across the globe. The annual incidence of cancer (the number of new cases divided by the population size) and the type of cancer most commonly diagnosed varies widely among countries. Much of the global variation in cancer incidence and type is thought to be due to environmental influences. These include exposure to agents in the air or water that cause cancer, and lifestyle factors such as smoking and diet. Researchers identify environmental factors that affect cancer risk by measuring the exposure of a large number of individuals to a specific environmental factor and then monitoring these people for several years to see who develops cancer. The hope is that by identifying the environmental factors that cause or prevent cancer, the global burden of cancer can be reduced.
Why Was This Study Done?
Diet is thought to influence the incidence of several cancers but it is very difficult to unravel which aspects of diet are important. Being overweight, for example, is strongly associated with an increased risk of developing several types of cancer, but the evidence that the intake of red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and of processed meat (for example, bacon, ham, and sausages) is linked to cancer risk is much weaker. Although several studies have linked a high intake of red meat and processed meat to an increased risk of colorectal cancer (the colon is the large bowel; the rectum is the final few inches of the large bowel before the anus), whether this aspect of diet affects the risk of other types of cancer is unclear. In this prospective study, the researchers have examined the association between meat intake and the incidence of a wide range of cancers.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
In 1995–1996, nearly half a million US men and women aged 50–71 y joined the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study. The participants in this study—none of whom had had cancer previously—completed a questionnaire about their dietary habits over the previous year and provided other personal information such as their age, weight, and smoking history. The researchers used these data and information from state cancer registries to look for associations between the intake of red and processed meat and the incidence of various cancers. They found that people whose red meat intake was in the top fifth of the range of intakes recorded in the study (the highest quintile of consumption) had an increased risk of developing colorectal, liver, lung, and esophageal cancer when compared with people in the lowest quintile of consumption. People in the highest quintile of processed meat intake had an increased risk of developing colorectal and lung cancer. The incidences of other cancers were largely unaffected by meat intake.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings provide strong evidence that people who eat a lot of red and processed meats have greater risk of developing colorectal and lung cancer than do people who eat small quantities. They also indicate that a high red meat intake is associated with an increased risk of esophageal and liver cancer, and that one in ten colorectal and one in ten lung cancers could be avoided if people reduced their red and processed meat intake to the lowest quintile. However, although the researchers allowed for factors such as smoking history that might have affected cancer incidences, some of the effects they ascribe to meat intake might be caused by other lifestyle factors. Furthermore, because the study's definitions of red meat and processed meat overlapped—bacon and ham, for example, were included in both categories—exactly which type of meat is related to cancer remains unclear. Finally, most of the study participants were non-Hispanic white, so these findings may not apply to people with different genetic backgrounds. Nevertheless, they add to the evidence that suggests that decreased consumption of red and processed meats could reduce the incidence of several types of cancer.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0040325.
The American Cancer Society provides answers to common questions about diet and cancer
Information is available from the charity Cancer Research UK about diet, healthy eating, and cancer
The American Institute for Cancer Research also provides information on diet and cancer.
The NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study presents information on the impact of diet and lifestyle factors on risk of cancer
The US National Cancer Institute provides information about the kind of food questionnaire used in this study