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Red Meat May Up Risk of Breast Cancer

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A rather large study suggests that regularly eating a lot of red meat—more than 1.5 servings per day—can nearly double a women's risk of developing hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. This study adds to growing evidence that diet can influence cancer risk.

Still, it's important to look at the details of this study. The researchers didn't distinguish among types of red meat. So there's no way to know if one type of red meat is more problematic than another. Also, the women who ate red meat in this study were more likely to:

  • smoke
  • weigh more
  • eat more calories

All these factors make it harder to interpret the results.

Eating a healthy diet is just one of many things you can do to lower your risk of breast cancer. To have a healthy, balanced diet, you need to eat a wide variety of foods from all the food groups. Your best bet is to choose the most nutritionally rich foods you can from each food group each day. Pick foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products. You may want to choose organic sources of foods.

Maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, not smoking and limiting your alcohol consumption are other steps you can take to lower your risk of breast cancer.

For more information on risk reduction, visit our Lower Your Risk section.

For more information on eating a healthy diet, visit our Nutrition section.

Read an opinion piece by Dr. Marisa Weiss, M.D., president and founder of Breastcancer.org, on this study below.

Red Meat Intake and Risk of Breast Cancer Among Premenopausal Women

Opinion from Dr. Marisa Weiss, President and Founder, Breastcancer.org, in collaboration with ABCnews.com

The Nurses Health Study has given us something new to chew on today: red meat intake in premenopausal women seemed to increase the risk of developing hormone-receptor positive breast cancer (that's the kind of breast cancer cells that likes to grow in response to the hormone estrogen).

Given the rise in cases of hormone receptor positive breast cancers diagnosed in this country, the authors set out to see what might be feeding this higher risk. Knowing that diet early in life can impact on risk of disease later in life, they had over 90,000 premenopausal nurses fill out several questionnaire studies on their diets, over the study's 12 years of follow-up. Then they tracked who got breast cancer and who didn't. This is what they found: the more red meat consumed by premenopausal women, from ≤ 3/week, to more than once a day, the risk of hormone-receptor positive breast cancer nearly doubled. This finding was statistically significant—unlikely to be due to chance alone. (Hormone receptor positive breast cancer has a better prognosis than hormone receptor-negative breast cancer; and the risk of hormone-receptor negative breast cancer was unchanged.)

Does this mean that burgers are out and pork is in? This study looked at various kinds of red meat: steaks, burgers, hot dogs, lamb, and pork. But they were all thrown into the hopper together—analyzed as a group. So we don't have any specific information about the relative safety or danger of one kind of red meat vs. another.

Methods used in this study may not give the findings enough statistical clout since the study wasn't specifically designed to settle this big red meaty question. For example, the red-meat-eaters in this study differed from the non-red-meat-eaters in potentially important ways making the conclusions a bit shaky: red-meat-eaters were more likely to be current smokers, weigh more and consume more calories.

Still this study does help identify important questions to further consider: the connection between red meat and breast cancer, and if this risk holds up, then what kinds of red meat are most closely associated with this higher risk? Everyone—not just women—wants to know these answers.

"What's safe to put on the table today? It's 'Russian Roulette' between the pesticides on vegetables, the hormones in meat, the junk in farmed fish, the pollutants in the water and air. Going to the grocery store these days puts me in a panic," says Beth C., currently under treatment for early stage breast cancer.

Hunger for information on safe foods—voiced by my patients at the hospital and the millions of visitors at Breastcancer.org—propelled us at Breastcancer.org to launch a section on nutrition, as well as feature Ask-the-Expert Conferences on nutrition.

"I just don't know how I could've gotten breast cancer: I run miles every day, I'm thin and don't smoke, and I'm practically a vegetarian," says Melodie C., who's in a battle with metastatic breast cancer.

So what can women do to reduce their risk? While there is no "magic bullet" there is still a lot each individual woman can do. Variation (mix up your protein options: egg whites, beans, tofu, chicken, fish, meats), moderation and portion control (your protein portion need be no bigger than a deck of cards), balance and diversity (pick 5-9 vegetables and fruits per day of different colors: blueberries, peaches, broccoli, cauliflower, yellow squash). Not smoking, limiting or avoiding alcohol consumption (fewer than 5 drinks/week), exercising 3-4 or more hours per week; following a low fat diet and sticking to your ideal body weight are all important. Buying organic—and trying to lower your exposure to pesticides, fertilizers, and hormones in food—is also likely to make a meaningful difference.

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