Does Red Meat Cause Breast Cancer?

December 2006

Is red meat really so dangerous? The latest food scare was in the form of news stories that said that eating red meat causes breast cancer. Here’s what the study was really all about.

A study of more than 90,000 nurses, led by a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, was published in a respected medical journal in November, 2006. When the women entered the study in 1989, they were between 25 and 42 years old. The women reported their own food habits to the researchers in 1991, 1993, and 1995. Their health was evaluated from 1991 through 2003.

Of the 1021 women who developed breast cancer while participating in the study, women with a certain type of common breast cancer (estrogen and progesterone receptor positive) were more likely to have eaten, on average, at least 11 servings of red meat every week. In contrast, the study showed that women who ate 5 servings or fewer of red meat every week were only about half as likely to develop breast cancer.

In addition to beef, pork and bacon were both included as red meats. The study results showed that women who ate more pork were more likely to develop breast cancer than women eating beef or bacon. The study did not distinguish whether the women ate organic red meat or not. What is surprising, however, is that the red meat that is most associated with breast cancer in this study — pork– does not have the hormone residues that beef may have. The researchers therefore conclude that the fat content, processing, and other factors may be more important factors affecting breast cancer than whether the beef is organic or not.

For most people, the most reassuring aspect of the study results is that even the women with the lowest risk of breast cancer were eating up to 5 portions of red meat every week. This suggests that even if eating red meat does contribute to breast cancer risk, it is probably safe to eat red meat on a regular basis – just not everyday. On the other hand, it is important keep in mind that a portion of any food is generally considered about the size of a fist. Larger portions, such as a large steak, probably would count as two portions – or more!

Perhaps most important to remember: this is just one study. More research is needed to determine if pork or any kind of red meat really does increase the risk of breast cancer, and if so, whether the risk is caused by meat itself, only certain kinds of meat, or the way the meat is processed or cooked.

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