Eating meat regularly could carry a higher risk of a wide range of common illnesses, a new study suggests.
Previous studies have linked red and processed meat – like bacon or sausages – to several diseases, such as bowel cancer.
But a new study examined the relationship between meat consumption in general and 25 common illnesses other than cancer.
Researchers from the University of Oxford looked at 475,000 men and women who are taking part in the UK Biobank study.
Participants reported their levels of meat consumption – which was checked with follow-up surveys – and researchers tracked those taking part for an average of eight years to assess whether they went on to develop any of the conditions.
People who ate meat three or more times a week were deemed to be “regular” meat eaters.
These people were also likely to have more “adverse health behaviours” than people who ate meat less regularly, including being overweight, smoking, drinking and eating less fruit and vegetables.
The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, found that higher consumption of meat – including processed and unprocessed meat – carried a higher risk of heart disease, pneumonia and digestive conditions.
People who ate more meat were also more likely to have polyps in the bowel and diabetes.
But eating unprocessed red meat was linked to a lower risk of iron deficiency anaemia.
People who ate more poultry, including chicken and turkey, were found to be more likely to have reflux – or gastro-oesophageal reflux disease – and digestive conditions, diseases of the gall bladder and diabetes.
But they were also found to have a lower risk of anaemia.
The authors said that having a higher body mass index (BMI) accounted for a “substantial proportion” of the increased risks found among regular meat eaters.
“Our findings from this large, prospective study of British adults show that meat consumption is associated with higher risks of several common conditions but a lower risk of iron deficiency anaemia,” the authors wrote.
Lead author Dr Keren Papier, from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at the University of Oxford, said: “We have long known that unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption is likely to be carcinogenic and this research is the first to assess the risk of 25 non-cancerous health conditions in relation to meat intake in one study.
“Additional research is needed to evaluate whether the differences in risk we observed in relation to meat intake reflect causal relationships, and if so the extent to which these diseases could be prevented by decreasing meat consumption.
“The result that meat consumption is associated with a lower risk of iron-deficiency anaemia, however, indicates that people who do not eat meat need to be careful that they obtain enough iron, through dietary sources or supplements.”
Commenting on the study, Professor Robert Pickard, member of the Food Advisory Board, said: “Overall, it is important to think about the balance of foods that make up a varied and healthy diet: plenty of wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, and limited amounts of foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, rather than focussing on one particular food alone.
“Red meat can form part of a healthier dietary pattern, and is included in the Government’s healthy eating model – the Eatwell Guide, and is an important contributor in the UK diet to nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin B12.”