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University of Alberta's School of Public Health study:

'Eating fruits and vegetables reduces carcinogenic effects of red and processed meats'

Recent research led by Katerina Maximova, an adjunct professor in the University of Alberta's School of Public Health and member of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta, shows that low consumption of fruits and vegetables combined with a higher intake of processed meats is associated with greater incidence of cancer for Albertans.

Paul Veugelers, professor and co-author, said this evidence is established by the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease project, as well as the International Agency for the Research of Cancer, which has identified 15 cancers with possible links to consumption of red and processed meat. These include colorectal, stomach, esophagus, kidney, liver and other cancers. For cancer prevention, it is recommended to limit the amount of red meat and to avoid processed meat altogether.

Maximova, now Murphy Family Foundation Chair in Early Life Interventions and associate professor in the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, along with her School of Public Health colleagues, Veugelers and Irina Dinu, and their students tackled the complicated concept of co-consumption. They examined the co-consumption of red and processed meat along with foods that are recommended for cancer prevention—including fruits and vegetables, and whole grains and fibre—to note the effects on cancer rates, and how old people were at the time of their cancer diagnosis. 

The study used data collected over more than 13 years from participants in Alberta’s Tomorrow Project, a long-term study tracking the health of more than 50,000 adults in the province. In addition to detailed dietary information, it offers a diverse range of data on participants’ demographics, behavioural characteristics and health.

Findings revealed that men with low intake of vegetables and fruit combined with a high intake of processed meat were 1.8 times as likely to develop one of the 15 cancers during follow up. The corresponding risk for women was 1.5 times.

Men who ate a diet high in vegetables and fruit and low in processed meat had a 7.1 year longer time to diagnosis of the 15 cancers—80.4 years of age as opposed to 73.3. The difference in estimated median age for women was 6.3 years—79.3 versus 72.9 years of age for diagnosis.

Veugelers acknowledged that red meat is an important source of protein, iron and other micronutrients, but added that consumption in western nations is too high. In the United States, adults consume an average of 1.47 servings of red meat per day, well above the recommendation of 1.0 serving per week.

Veugelers said there is still much research to be done on the interactions of co-consumed foods and their relation to cancer risks before health authorities can safely make specific recommendations, but he said it is critical that we consider what we eat.

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