WASHINGTON — Eating red meat increases the chances of dying prematurely, according to a large federal study offering powerful new evidence that a diet that regularly includes steaks, burgers and pork chops is hazardous to your health.
The study of more than 500,000 middle-age and elderly Americans found that those who consumed the equivalent of about a small hamburger every day were more than 30% more likely to die during the 10 years they were followed, mostly from heart disease and cancer. Sausage, cold cuts and other processed meats increased the risk too.
Previous research had found a link between red meat and an increased risk of heart disease and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, but the new study is the first large examination of the relationship between eating meat and overall mortality.
"The bottom line is, we found an association between red meat and processed meat and an increased risk of mortality," said Rashmi Sinha of the National Cancer Institute, who led the study published Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
In contrast, routine consumption of fish, chicken, turkey and other poultry decreased the risk of death by a small amount, the study found.
Although pork often is promoted as "the other white meat," it is believed to increase the risk for cancer because of its iron content, Sinha said. It is often grouped with red meat in nutritional studies.
"This would be the Rolls-Royce of studies on this topic," said Barry Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. "This is a slam-dunk to say that, 'Yes, indeed, if people want to be healthy and live longer, consume less red and processed meat.' "
There are many explanations for how red meat might be unhealthy: Cooking red meat generates cancer-causing compounds; red meat is also high in saturated fat, which has been associated with breast and colorectal cancer; and meat is high in iron, which also is believed to promote cancer.