Meat consumption linked to a wide range of diseases

A study by researchers at the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, based on data from nearly 475,000 participants in the UK Biobank study, has found that regular meat consumption is associated with a larger range of diseases than previously thought.  The study looked at 25 common non-cancer health conditions in relation to meat consumption (red and processed meat are already recognised as likely to cause cancer by the World Health Organisation).

After taking factors such as smoking, body mass index (BMI; a measure of obesity) and the consumption of other foods and alcohol into account, the study found that higher consumption of (unprocessed) red meat and processed meat combined was associated with higher risks of ischaemic heart disease (by 15% for every 70g per day increase in red and processed meat intake), pneumonia (by 31%), diverticular disease (by 19%), colon polyps (by 10%), and diabetes (by 30%).  Higher consumption of poultry meat was associated with higher risks of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (by 17% for every 30g per day increase in poultry meat intake), gastritis and duodenitis (by 12%), diverticular disease (by 10%), gallbladder disease (by 11%), and diabetes (by 14%).  Most of the positive associations were even larger before BMI was taken into account, suggesting that the increased risks could be partly due to regular meat eaters having a higher average body weight than low or non-meat eaters.  However, the fact that they remained highly statistically significant after controlling for BMI suggests that meat consumption is likely to increase the risk of the diseases listed above, irrespective of body weight and other dietary characteristics.

In contrast, higher intakes of red meat and poultry meat (but not processed meat) were associated with a lower risk of iron deficiency anaemia: the risk was 20% lower with every 50g higher per day intake of red meat and 17% lower with every 30g higher per day intake of poultry meat.  Lead author of the study, Dr Keren Papier, advised that “people who do not eat meat need to be careful that they obtain enough iron, through dietary sources or supplements.”  Good plant food sources of iron for veg*ns include lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins, quinoa and fortified breakfast cereals, while consuming vitamin C (commonly found in fruits and vegetables) at the same time increases iron absorption.

Another recent analysis of data from the UK Biobank study found that processed meat was associated with a higher risk of developing dementia (by 44% for every 25g per day increase in intake, equivalent to a single rasher of bacon), whereas (unprocessed) red meat was associated with a lower risk of dementia (by 19% for every 50g per day increase in intake), possibly because of differences in the nutritional composition of processed meat and unprocessed red meat.  Poultry meat was not associated with dementia risk, but total meat consumption was associated with a marginally higher risk of dementia (by 9% for every 50g per day increase in intake).

Paul Appleby

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