Eating red and processed meat, even in small amounts, may increase the risk of death from all causes, according to a new study.
It is the first study to look at vegetarians compared to people who only sometimes ate meat.
The findings, giving more weight to an already large body of evidence, showed that even light meat eaters were at risk of heart disease but also of cancer.
For the first time, the researchers wanted to compare light meat eaters with vegetarians and said the study fills an important gap left out of previous research that only looked at higher levels of meat intake compared with lower levels.
Saeed Mastour Alshahrani, lead author of the study and a doctoral student at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, said: “A question about the effect of lower levels of intakes compared to no-meat eating remained unanswered.
“We wanted to take a closer look at the association of low intakes of red and processed meat with all-cause, cardiovascular diseases, and cancer mortality compared to those who didn’t eat meat at all.”
This study, ‘Red and Processed Meat and Mortality in a Low Meat Intake Population’, is part of the Adventist Heath Study-2 which studies the health of about 96,000 members of the Seventh-Day Adventist church in the US and Canada.
Its population is unique because about 50 per cent are vegetarians while those who eat meat do it at low levels.
This allowed researchers to investigate the effect of low levels of red and processed meat intake compared to zero-intake in a large setting.
The study evaluated the deaths of over 7,900 individuals over an 11-year period.
Diet was assessed by a validated quantitative food frequency questionnaire and mortality outcome data were obtained from the National Death Index.
Of those individuals who consumed meat, 90 percent of them only ate about two ounces or less of red meat per day.
Nearly 2,600 of the reported deaths were due to cardiovascular disease, and more than 1,800 were cancer deaths.
Processed meat, modified to improve flavour through curing, smoking, or salting – such as ham and salami – alone was not significantly associated with risk of mortality possibly due to a very small proportion of the population who consume such meat.
But the total intake of red and processed meat was associated with relatively higher risks of total and cardiovascular disease deaths.
Assistant Professor of preventative medicine and public health, Michael Orlich, the co-director of AHS-2 and co-author of the present study, said these new findings support a significant body of research that affirms the potential ill health effects of red and processed meats.
He said: “Our findings give additional weight to the evidence already suggesting that eating red and processed meat may negatively impact health and lifespan.”
The study was published in the journal Nutrients.