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Diseases linked to processed meat could easily be prevented

The saying “you are what you eat” is more relevant than ever. New research reveals the health benefits of reducing processed meat consumption.

In the United States alone, a reduction in the consumption of processed meat could potentially prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of chronic disease within a decade.

Processed meat and health

In a recent study, experts designed an innovative simulation tool that projects the health impacts of lowering processed meat and red meat consumption.

The research team, hailing from the University of Edinburgh’s Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, used the tool to predict multiple health outcomes.

The team’s microsimulation, the first of its kind, utilized data from a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) national health survey.

The simulation estimated the health effects of a range of meat consumption reduction -from five to 100 percent – on the U.S. adult population.

Focus of the research 

“Cardiovascular disease and cancer are the two most common causes of death in the USA, including during the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote the study authors. 

“High processed meat consumption is associated with increased risks of cardiovascular disease; type 2 diabetes, and some cancers, particularly colorectal cancer.” 

The researchers noted that in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans,” the same classification as tobacco and asbestos. 

“The association of processed meat consumption with these chronic diseases is thought to be due to high haem iron, sodium, nitrites, nitrates, and saturated fat.”

“Compounds generated from high-temperature cooking – namely advanced glycation-end products, heterocyclic aromatic amines, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – have also been implicated in chronic disease outcomes.”

Despite these findings, intake of processed meat in the United States has not been reduced over the past 20 years, said the researchers.

Potential benefits

The findings of the study are nothing short of impressive. The experts found that a 30 percent reduction in processed meat intake would have significant health benefits over a decade.

This level of change would prevent more than 350,000 cases of diabetes. Additionally, it would result in 92,500 fewer cardiovascular disease cases. There would also be 53,300 fewer colorectal cancer cases.

The microsimulation suggests that the health benefits of this scenario are very significant. White males would experience the most considerable benefits. Individuals with an annual household income of $25,000 to $55,000 would also see substantial health improvements.

Furthermore, the researchers considered the impact of cutting unprocessed red meat consumption alone, as well as reducing both processed and unprocessed red meat intake.

Impact of processed meat reduction

The study shows that empowering the public to reduce red meat consumption by 30 percent could have significant health benefits.

A reduction in both processed and unprocessed red meat could result in 1,073,400 fewer diabetes cases. There would also be 382,400 fewer cardiovascular disease cases. Additionally, it could lead to 84,400 fewer colorectal cancer cases.

Moreover, reducing unprocessed red meat intake by 30 percent has a simple implication. It would mean eating around one less quarter-pound beef burger each week.

Interestingly, more disease cases were prevented by reducing unprocessed red meat compared to processed meat. This observation is attributed to the higher daily consumption of unprocessed red meat at 47g a day, compared to the 29g a day of processed meat.

The researchers caution that less is known about the effect of eating unprocessed red meat on chronic disease risk. They recommend interpreting these estimates with care and advocate for more research on the subject.

Health, climate, and meat consumption

This research goes beyond the realm of public health, according to Professor Lindsay Jaacks, Personal Chair of Global Health and Nutrition at the University of Edinburgh.

“Cutting consumption of meat has been recommended by national and international organizations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the Climate Change Committee here in the UK and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC,” said Professor Jaacks.

“Our research finds that these changes in diets could also have significant health benefits in the U.S., and so this is a clear win-win for people and planet.”

This study presents a compelling case for individuals to consider less meat in their diets. The potential rewards are two-fold, promising a healthier population and a healthier planet.

Encouraging healthier dietary choices

Beyond individual efforts, public policy can play a crucial role in guiding healthier dietary choices. Implementing educational campaigns about the benefits of reducing meat consumption, along with incentives for choosing plant-based alternatives, could amplify the positive health outcomes detailed in the study.

Governments should consider adopting policies like meat taxes and subsidies for healthier food options. These measures can make it easier for people to make beneficial dietary changes.

The study is published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health.


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