Eating meat regularly increases someone’s risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, pneumonia and other serious illnesses, research has found.
It is already known that intake of red and processed meat heightens the risk of being diagnosed with bowel cancer. But these findings are the first to assess whether meat consumption is linked to any of the 25 non-cancerous illnesses that most commonly lead to people being admitted to hospital in the UK.
The academics from Oxford University who have published the study found that consumption of red meat, processed meat and poultry meat such as chicken and turkey, either alone or together, at least three times a week was linked to a greater risk of nine different illnesses.
The findings, published in the journal BMC Medicine, are based on analysis of the health records of 474,985 middle-aged Britons. The researchers examined details provided about their diets with information from their medical records about hospital admissions and also mortality data for an average of eight years.
The study concluded: “On average, participants who reported consuming meat regularly (three or more times per week) had more adverse health behaviours and characteristics than participants who consumed meat less regularly.
“Higher consumption of unprocessed red and processed meat combined was associated with higher risks of ischaemic heart disease, pneumonia, diverticular disease, colon polyps and diabetes, and higher consumption of poultry meat was associated with higher risks of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, gastritis and duodenitis, diverticular disease, gallbladder disease and diabetes.”
The academics, led by Dr Keren Papier from the university’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, found that every 70 grams of unprocessed red meat and processed meat that someone consumed daily raised their risk of heart disease by 15% and of diabetes by 30%.
Those meats may raise the risk of heart disease because they contain saturated fatty acids, which can increase low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol, which is known to put people at greater risk of heart problems.
Similarly, every 30 grams of poultry meat eaten daily increased the risk of developing gastro-oesophageal reflux by 17% and of diabetes by 14%, they found.
However, it was mainly meat-eaters who were overweight or obese who were running these risks, it emerged during the study. Most of the increased risks of disease identified were reduced once participants’ body mass index was taken into account.
“Differences in BMI across the categories of meat consumption appear to account for a substantial part of the increased risks,” the article in BMC Medicine says.
Eating meat regularly did reduce the risk of someone suffering from iron-deficiency anaemia, though.
“We have long known that unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption is likely to be carcinogenic and this research is the first to assess the risk of 25 non-cancerous health conditions in relation to meat intake in one study,” said Papier.
Further research was needed into whether the differences in risk she and her team observed reflected “causal relationships [with meat intake] and, if so, the extent to which these diseases could be prevented by decreasing meat consumption”, she added.
Public Health England said that anyone who eats more than 90g of red or processed meat a day should cut down to 70g.
Dr Alison Tedstone, the agency’s chief nutritionist, said: “Globally the evidence suggests that people who eat red and processed meat should limit their intake. While it can form part of a healthy diet, eating too much has been linked to increased risk of developing bowel cancer.” For the sake of their health, people should follow the guidelines for a healthy, balanced diet set out in PHE’s Eatwell Plate, she added.
The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition first declared in 2010 that eating too much red or processed meat probably increased the risk of bowel cancer.
The British Meat Processors Association has been approached for a response.