Reducing processed meat consumption brings a range of health benefits

  • Food
  • July 10, 2024

A study found that reducing processed meat consumption by about a third could prevent more than 350,000 cases of diabetes in the US over the next decade.

According to researchers, a 30 percent reduction in processed meat consumption by US adults (the equivalent of about 10 slices of bacon per week) would also lead to tens of thousands of fewer cases of heart disease and colon cancer.

A team from the University of Edinburgh's Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems, together with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has developed a simulation tool to estimate the health effects of reducing consumption of processed meat and unprocessed red meat.

Although many studies have found links between high levels of processed meat consumption and chronic disease, few have evaluated the impact on multiple health outcomes. Some previous research also suggests that unprocessed red meat may contribute to the risk of chronic disease, but the evidence is still limited.

The researchers used data from a national health survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to create a simulated, representative sample of the US adult population — a so-called microsimulation.

Their microsimulation is the first to estimate the effects of reducing processed meat and unprocessed red meat consumption on a range of health outcomes in the US — from 5 to 100 percent.

The team estimated how changes in meat consumption affect adults’ risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer and death. The effects were evaluated in the entire population and separately by age, sex, household income and ethnicity.

According to researchers, reducing processed meat consumption by 30 percent would not only prevent more than 350,000 cases of diabetes, but also 92,500 fewer cases of cardiovascular disease and 53,300 fewer cases of colorectal cancer over ten years.

In this scenario, white men and men with annual household incomes between $25,000 and $55,000 were found to experience the greatest health benefits.

Researchers also analyzed the effects of reducing intake of only unprocessed red meat and reducing consumption of both processed meat and unprocessed red meat.

Reducing consumption of both by 30 percent reduced the number of diabetes cases by 1,073,400, the number of cardiovascular diseases by 382,400 and the number of colorectal cancer cases by 84,400.

Just reducing unprocessed red meat intake by 30 percent — which would mean eating about one fewer quarter-pound beef burger per week — resulted in more than 732,000 fewer cases of diabetes. It also led to 291,500 fewer cases of cardiovascular disease and 32,200 fewer cases of colorectal cancer.

The finding that more cases of disease were prevented by reducing consumption of unprocessed red meat compared to processed meat is partly because the average daily intake of unprocessed red meat is higher than that of processed meat, 47 grams per day versus 29 grams per day, respectively.

Because less is known about the effect of eating unprocessed red meat on chronic disease risk, the team says these estimates should be interpreted with caution and more research is needed.

The study, published in The Lancet Planetary Health magazine, was funded by The Wellcome Trust.

Professor Lindsay Jaacks, Personal Professor of Global Health and Nutrition at the University of Edinburgh and one of the study's authors, said: “Reducing meat consumption has been recommended by national and international organisations 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. Our research shows that these dietary changes could also have significant health benefits in the US, so this is a clear win-win for people and the planet.”

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