Red meat and breast cancer risk

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

AUGUST 26, 2019

Woman Buying Red Meat at Grocery StoreA recent study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that women who ate the most red meat were 23% more likely to develop breast cancer than women who ate the least. Women were followed for an average of seven and a half years, and the association between red meat consumption and breast cancer was higher for post-menopausal women. Of even more interest, at least to me, was the finding that women who ate the most white meat (think chicken) were 28% less likely to develop breast cancer.

Other than potentially being a good marketing tool for the poultry and pork industries, what do we learn from this? One cynical response would be something along the lines of Here we go again. How many times has a study reported that something raised the risk of cancer and then later studies repudiated that finding? There are always some constancies. We know that:

  • diets that are higher in fruits and vegetables and lower in red meat and processed foods are better for us
  • our mothers always told us, and we then always tell our own children, to eat their greens
  • a balanced and healthy diet is preferable for our general health and sense of well being

Nutrition counseling is available at BIDMC, and there are dieticians specifically assigned to the Cancer Center.

I am always skeptical of studies that trumpet diet information, beyond the basics, as ways to reduce risk of cancer. We are always looking for the reasons and wish that we knew why our cancers were diagnosed. If we knew the reasons, we could feel a little more in control and try to avoid those causes. One of my all time favorites was the woman who insisted that she developed breast cancer because her dog stepped on her breast. We do know that too much alcohol and tobacco exposure and nitrate-containing processed meats do raise our cancer risks. It is smart to be wise about those things, but I have never thought it is necessary to become hyper vigilant about every morsel of food we swallow. In every support group that I have ever facilitated, there have been women with every kind of diet: vegan to vegetarian to eating mainly fast food.

There are other well-documented reasons to limit the quantity of red meat that we all eat. One that is not always considered is the impact on the environment and global warning. Livestock farming contributes at least 18% of human produced greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. That is a sobering fact and, added to the other warnings about too much red meat, might make us consider our food choices.

Do you eat red meat? Have you changed your diet habits since cancer? Share your story

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.