Does red meat really cause breast cancer?
Does red meat cause breast cancer?
The very short answer to this is: probably not.
It is widely accepted in the scientific community that there is no confirmed link between eating red meat and any kind of cancer. The researchers of this particular study themselves say “the role of red meat intake during adulthood in risk of breast cancer is not consistent” which means that different studies show different results.
Let’s look at the facts:
1) Observational Study
The study is what’s called an observational study. This means that the researchers simply took a selection of the general population and assessed them. This sort of research can only provide a “correlation” or that two independent events are occurring at the same time. Correlation does not imply causation, or that one event has caused the other.
You can think of it this way:
As ice cream sales increase, the rate of drowning deaths increases sharply.
Therefore, ice cream consumption causes drowning.
This is clearly illogical – in this example it is a third event ie summer that links the two – and this is possible with the study in question.
2) Food Frequency Questionnaires
Researchers used food frequency questionnaires which are notoriously inaccurate. Can you remember, in detail, what you ate last week? What about last month? The women being studied were asked in 1998 to recall what they ate as teenagers between 18 to 38 years previously. This doesn’t mean that the information is wrong, just that it could be.
3) Unhealthy habits
There were other important differences between the groups studied. For instance, the women who ate more red meat also smoked more (9% vs 15%), ate more in general (6266kJ vs 9271kJ) and were on average more overweight (BMI 23.3 vs 25.7).
The Director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, Professor Valerie Beral explains that “the totality of the available evidence indicates that red meat consumption has little or no effect on breast cancer risk.”
“Diet is notoriously difficult to measure. The most reliable measure of meat consumption is whether or not people are vegetarian. Vegetarians do not have lower risks of breast-cancer than non-vegetarians, further supporting evidence that meat consumption in unlikely to play a major role in breast cancer.”
You should continue to eat good quality red meat, preferably from grass fed animals. Eating as many different coloured vegetables, oily fish, berries and raw nuts and seeds forms the basis of a very healthy and protective diet.