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Reducing Red Meat Consumption Lowers Chronic Disease Risk

CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom—Reducing the consumption of red and processed meats may significantly reduce the incidence of chronic diseases, such as certain cancers, diabetes and heart disease, and reduce greenhouse emissions by 28 million tons, according to a new study published in the journal BMJ Open.

Consumption of red and processed meat (RPM) is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and high intakes of these foods increase the risks of several leading chronic diseases. Previously published evidence shows the risks of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and bowel cancer rise by 42%, 19%, and 18% respectively, with every additional 50 g of red and processed meat eaten daily.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Public Health conducted a study that used newly derived estimates of habitual meat intakes in U.K. adults to assess potential co-benefits to health and the environment from reduced red and processed meat consumption.

The researchers examined responses to the 2000-2001 British National Diet and Nutrition Survey to estimate red and processed meat intake across the U.K. population and published data from life cycle analyses to quantify average greenhouse gas emissions for 45 different food categories. They devised a feasible "counterfactual" alternative, based on a doubling of the proportion of survey respondents who said they were vegetarian—to 4.7% of men and 12.3% of women—and the remainder adopting the same diet as those in the bottom fifth of red and processed meat consumption.

They found those in the top fifth of consumption ate 2.5 times as much as those in the bottom fifth. Therefore, adopting the diet of those eating the least red and processed meat would mean cutting average consumption from 91 to 53 g a day for men and from 54 to 30 g for women. The calculations showed it would significantly cut the risk of coronary artery disease, diabetes, and bowel cancer by between 3% and 12% across the population as a whole. And this reduction in risk would be more than twice as much as the population averages for those at the top end of consumption who moved to the bottom end.

The researchers noted the expected reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would amount to 0.45 tons per person per year, or just short of 28 million tons of the equivalent of CO2 a year.

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