National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
April 7, 2009 • Volume 6 / Number 7

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A Conversation With

A Conversation with…Dr. Rashmi Sinha

Dr. Rashmi Sinha is a senior investigator in the Nutritional Epidemiology Branch of NCI's Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics. She is the lead author of a prospective study on meat intake and mortality, which was published March 23 in the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Dr. Rashmi Sinha Dr. Rashmi Sinha

What was the meat intake study and why did you do it?

Our study population of nearly 550,000 individuals came from the prospective NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which NCI launched in 1995. Although previous studies have linked meat intake to increased mortality from chronic disease, including cancer and heart disease, the nature of this association is not well defined. Using a food frequency questionnaire we sent to AARP members, we investigated red, white, and processed meat intakes as risk factors for total mortality and cause-specific mortality in men and women.

What were your main findings?
After 10 years of follow up, we found that consumption of red and processed meat was associated with modest increases in total mortality, cancer mortality, and cardiovascular mortality in both men and women. In contrast, white meat intake was related to a lower risk for total mortality and cancer mortality among both men and women.

We calculated the percentage of deaths that could be prevented if individuals adopted the lowest intake of red and processed meat seen among study participants. The approximate annual death rate for those individuals who ate the greatest amount of red meat would drop by 11 percent for men and 16 percent for women if they began to eat red meat at the levels consumed by individuals with the lowest intake of red meat.

What challenges did you encounter in conducting the study?
There are inherent limitations to recalling food intake over time. We attempted to remove the influence of confounding by adjusting our models for reported energy intake. To address other confounding factors - such as body mass index, family history of cancer, alcohol intake, and smoking - we reported results from models with and without these factors.

Our study population was largely non-Hispanic whites. And, on average, AARP members are more highly educated, consume less fat and red meat and more fiber and fruits and vegetables, and are less likely to be current smokers than similarly aged adults in the U.S. population, so our study results may not be true for other populations.

What are the public health implications?
The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund both recommend reducing red and processed meat intake to decrease cancer risk.

There are various mechanisms by which meat may be related to mortality. In relation to cancer, meat is a source of several carcinogens, including chemicals which are formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Iron in red meat may also increase oxidative damage and the formation of carcinogenic compounds. Furthermore, meat is a major source of saturated fat, which has been shown to increase the risk of breast and colorectal cancer. As a next step, researchers should investigate the relationship between subtypes of meat and specific causes of mortality.