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To Prevent Diabetes and Colorectal Cancer, Americans Could Cut Down on Processed Meat, Say Researchers

A steel tray of bacon.
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America’s high rate of diabetes and colorectal cancer cases could be trimmed if more consumers cut down on their processed meat consumption – that’s the conclusion from a new simulation study published in the Lancet Planetary Health.

Reducing intake of processed meat products like bacon, salami and corned beef by a third could prevent more than 350,000 cases of diabetes in the US over 10 years, according to researchers from the University of Edinburgh.

Cutting down on meat

To simulate a reduction in meat consumption, the research group constructed a “microsimulation” from data taken from two versions of the US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, one conducted between 2015–2016 and one conducted between 2017–2018. All 8,665 survey participants had given at least two dietary recall responses (recalling all food and beverages they’d consumed in the previous 24 hours).

The researchers then multiplied the participants’ baseline risks by relative risks associated with individual processed meat consumption, sourced from a meta-analysis on type 2 diabetes, a meta-analysis on colorectal cancer and a combined analysis of six US cohort studies for cardiovascular disease.

At baseline, the researchers found that the average participant ate 29.1 grams of processed meat daily. Mean baseline daily unprocessed red meat consumption was 46.7 grams.

Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that the average intake of processed meat is 17 grams per day.

The rest of the average US participants’ diets were characterized by high daily intakes of refined grains and added sugars, and low daily intakes of whole grains and vegetables.

By extrapolating their survey findings across the US, the University of Edinburgh team estimated that a 30% reduction in processed meat intake alone could lead to 352
,900 fewer cases of type 2 diabetes, 92,500 fewer cases of cardiovascular disease, 53,300 fewer cases of colorectal cancer and 16,700 fewer all-cause deaths during a 10-year period.

In this scenario, white males and those with an annual household income between $25,000 and $55,000 were found to experience the greatest health benefits from such a meat reduction – likely due to the relatively high processed meat intake of males, on average, when compared to females in the US.

The researchers also analyzed the impacts of reducing unprocessed red meat intake alone and cutting consumption of both processed meat and unprocessed red meat.

According to the microsimulation, reducing only the consumption of unprocessed red meat by 30% – the equivalent of around one less quarter-pound beef burger a week – resulted in more than 732,000 fewer diabetes cases, 291,500 fewer cardiovascular disease cases and 32,200 fewer colorectal cancer cases.

This greater reduction in disease reflects the higher average intake of unprocessed red meat.

A reduction in both meat types by 30% resulted in 1,073,400 fewer diabetes cases, 382,400 fewer cardiovascular disease cases and 84,400 fewer colorectal cancer cases.

Less meat, more health

Despite the caveats that come with such a data simulation, the researchers say their results help substantiate the growing health and environmental arguments for diets consisting of less meat.

“Cutting consumption of meat has been recommended by national and international organizations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the Climate Change Committee here in the UK and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC,” said Professor Lindsay Jaacks, personal chair of Global Health and Nutrition at the University of Edinburgh and co-author of the study.

“Our research finds that these changes in diets could also have significant health benefits in the US, and so this is a clear win-win for people and planet.”



Reference: Kennedy J, Alexander P, Smith Taillie L, Jaacks LM. Estimated effects of reductions in processed meat consumption and unprocessed red meat consumption on occurrences of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and mortality in the USA: a microsimulation study. The Lanc. Plane. Heal. 2024. doi: 10.1016/S2542-5196(24)00118-9

This article
 is a rework of a press release issued by the University of Edinburgh. Material has been edited for length and content.