Health & Wellness

Does red meat raise the risk of breast cancer?

Q: I love red meat, but someone told me that eating it increases the risk of breast cancer. Is this true?

A:Unfortunately, according to data from the Nurses' Health Study II published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, this may indeed be true.Just as a reminder to readers, the Nurses' Health Study II originally started in 1989 and included 116,671 female registered nurses who lived in 14 States in the US. In 1991 the researchers began to ask them about their food intake and dietary regimens. So information pertaining to red meat and disease started from that time. The study continued to follow the women who were not yet menopausal (ages 26 to 46) for the next 12 years until 2003.  The nurses were sent a questionnaire biannually to update information on multiple life factors and medical events. And, for this part of the study, they were asked whether they had developed breast cancer, what kind and how advanced. Once a woman became menopausal or had a hysterectomy she was precluded from continuing to participate in this part of the study. So by 2003 “just" over 90,000 women were included.  What makes this study so important is that it includes large numbers of premenopausal women in various locations who knew the importance of their participation — 90 percent responded to the questionnaire (which is amazing).The study was able to determine if red meat intake is associated with an increased breast cancer risk. What did it find? That the risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer (estrogen and progesterone receptor positive, also known as ER+/PR+) increased in premenopausal women who consumed red meat. Once the breast cancer rates and the questionnaires on dietary intake were analyzed by epidemiologists and statisticians, it was found that eating three or fewer servings of red meat per week, (less than once a day), compared to eating no red meat increased the relative risk to 1.14 (which means a 14 percent increase in the risk of hormone positive breast cancer). Keep in mind that one serving is three ounces of meat. When the red meat intake increased to five or more servings per week (but no more than one serving per day) the relative rate for ER+/PR+ breast cancer was 1.42 (a 42 percent increase in risk). At 1.5 servings a day (think bacon or sausage in the morning and a hamburger or steak at night) the relative rate was 1.97 (almost twice as great the risk of developing breast cancer). These numbers were not seen, however, for ER-/PR- breast cancer. So what's in red meat that is bad for us? The authors aren't sure, but several theories have been postulated. It is thought there may be a certain substance in cooked meat that is carcinogenic, especially if it is charred. Red meat also contains heme iron, which could potentially (and remember, we're just guessing here) be an issue. Finally, there's concern that the hormones that are added to feed to help animals grow may be passed on to those of us who are carnivores. (Maybe this is the time to state that I don't eat red meat).

Although I hate to be the bearer of bad news, you may want to consider modifying your red meat intake. That said, there are so many other risks associated with what we eat, what we drink, and what we breathe; honing in on this one issue may be overdoing it.

Dr. Reichman’s bottom line: You may want to moderate your consumption of red meat if breast cancer is a major concern. Whatever you eat (and how much), drink, or breathe can affect your health; red meat may be a factor that should be regarded as one of many potential breast “threats.” Dr. Judith Reichman, the TODAY show's medical contributor on women's health, has practiced obstetrics and gynecology for more than 20 years. You will find many answers to your questions in her latest book, "Slow Your Clock Down: The Complete Guide to a Healthy, Younger You," which is now available in paperback. It is published by William Morrow, a division of .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.