People who eat more red and processed meat appear to have a modestly increased risk of death from all causes, as well as cancer and heart disease, over a 10-year period, according to a report in today’s issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.

In contrast, a higher intake of white meat appeared to be associated with a slightly decreased risk for overall and cancer deaths.

Rashmi Sinha, PhD, and colleagues at the National Cancer Institute assessed the association between meat intake and risk of death among more than 500,000 individuals who participated in the National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. These individuals, ages 50 to 71 when the study began in 1995, provided demographic information and completed a food frequency questionnaire to estimate their intake of white, red and processed meats. They were then followed for 10 years through the Social Security Administration Death Master File and National Death Index databases.

During the follow-up period, 47,976 men and 23,276 women died. The 20% of men and women who ate the most red meat had a higher risk for death (overall, heart disease and cancer) than the 20% of men and women who ate the least red meat, as did the 20% of men and women who ate the most versus the least amount of processed meat.

When comparing the 20% of participants who ate the most white meat to the 20% who ate the least, those with a high intake had a slightly lower risk for overall, cancer and heart-disease deaths.

Several mechanisms may account for the study’s results. Cancer-causing compounds are formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Meat is also a major source of saturated fat, which has been associated with breast and colorectal cancer. In addition, lower meat intake has been linked to a reduction in risk factors for heart disease, including lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Does this mean you need to give up meat? Tune in tomorrow for the answer.