The risk of developing breast cancer may be increased in women who eat too much red meat, according to a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. Researchers examined data from 88,803 women between the ages of 26 and 45 over 20 years and found a 22 percent increased risk in those with a higher intake of red meat during early adulthood.
The women were part of the Nurses’ Health Study II. They were asked to recall the types of food they ate as teens. Over the 20 years of the study 2,830 of the women developed breast cancer, and the data reflected that those eating the greatest amount of red meat, approximately one-and-one-half servings per day, were at higher risk when compared to women who ate only one serving per week. The study data also showed that the risk of developing breast cancer increased by 13 percent for each additional daily serving of red meat.
Researcher Dr. Maryam Farvid described the risk as small, and an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, Professor Tim Key, said the study provided only a “weak link” between eating red meat and breast cancer. Professor Valerie Beral, also from the University of Oxford, said there have been dozens of studies that looked at the cancer-red meat association and the evidence available indicates that there is little or no increased risk of developing breast cancer related to red meat consumption. She cautioned against looking at the results of a single study as definitive.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) states that the disease is the second leading cause of death in women. Although typically a woman’s disease, men do develop breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimates that in 2014 there will be 232,670 new cases in women, 2,360 new cases in men, and that there will be over 40,000 deaths between the two groups. There are two types of breast cancer: non-invasive, which remains within breast tissue, and invasive, which spreads to other parts of the body.
Poultry consumption was linked by the study to a 17 percent reduced risk in association with substituting a daily serving of poultry for a daily serving of meat. Substituting a serving of legumes, nuts, poultry and fish for red meat correlated to a 14 percent reduced risk.
The research did not prove that cancer is caused by red meat consumption, only a correlation. There are some theories as to why the relationship might exist. When red meat is cooked at higher temperatures it has been shown to release carcinogens. Hormones given to cattle may linger in meat and could increase a person’s hormone levels, and cancer is known to depend on the hormone environment. In addition, eating red meat is often associated with unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking, overeating and high-fat diets, all of which are connected to cancer risks.
Experts agree that breast cancer risk can be reduced by maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, not drinking too much alcohol, and swapping some of that red meat for increased servings of beans, fish, poultry or nuts. These guidelines are also recommended by the ACS, who in addition says to choose leaner cuts when eating red meat, and limit the intake of processed meats such as bacon, sausage and hot dogs. The Department of Health advises that people who eat more than 90 grams of red meat a day cut back to 70 grams to reduce breast cancer risk.
By Beth A. Balen