Cutting processed meat intake brings health benefits

Reducing consumption of processed meat by around one-third could prevent more than 350,000 cases of diabetes in the US over 10 years, a study suggests.

Close-up image of person picking up slices of cured sausage

Cutting US adults’ processed meat intake by 30 per cent – the equivalent of around 10 slices of bacon a week – would also lead to tens of thousands of fewer cases of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer, researchers say.

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

While many studies have identified 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 unprocessed red meat may contribute to chronic disease risk but evidence is still limited.

Simulated population

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

The team's microsimulation is the first to estimate the effects of reducing processed meat and unprocessed red meat consumption – from between 5 and 100 per cent – on multiple health outcomes in the US.

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

Health benefits

As well as preventing more than 350,000 cases of diabetes, cutting processed meat intake by 30 per cent would lead to 92,500 fewer cardiovascular disease cases and 53,300 fewer colorectal cancer cases over a decade, researchers say.

In this scenario, white males and those with an annual household income between $25,000 and $55,000 were found to experience the greatest health benefits. 

Cutting consumption

Researchers also analysed the impacts of reducing unprocessed red meat intake alone and cutting consumption of both processed meat and unprocessed red meat.

Reducing consumption of both by 30 per cent resulted in 1,073,400 fewer diabetes cases, 382,400 fewer cardiovascular disease cases and 84,400 fewer colorectal cancer cases.

Cutting unprocessed red meat intake alone by 30 per cent – which would mean eating around one less quarter-pound beef burger a week – resulted in more than 732,000 fewer diabetes cases. It also led to 291,500 fewer cardiovascular disease cases and 32,200 fewer colorectal cancer cases.

Remaining uncertainty

The finding that more disease cases were prevented by reducing unprocessed red meat compared to processed meat is partly due to the average daily intake of unprocessed red meat being higher than processed meat, at 47g a day versus 29g a day, respectively.

As 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 that more research is needed.

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

Cutting consumption of meat 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 finds that these changes in diets could also have significant health benefits in the US, and so this is a clear win-win for people and the planet.

Professor Lindsay JaacksPersonal Chair of Global Health and Nutrition

Related links

The Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems  

Journal paper

Image credit: Alex Guillaume via Unsplash