"Overall, we estimate that 3 percent of premature deaths each year could be prevented if people ate less than 20 grams processed meat per day," said Sabine Rohrmann of the University of Zurich, who led the study. (Twenty grams is about 0.7 ounces; a hot dog comes in at 50 to 70 grams or more, depending on the brand, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture website.)
The research, which followed people in 10 European countries in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition over one to two decades, was published Thursday in Biomed Central's open-access journal BMC Medicine. Researchers used questionnaires and food intake diaries for 448,568 men and women who were ages 35 to 69 when the study began.
The researchers noted that it's difficult to measure the effects of eating meat on health because of differences in people's other behaviors, including smoking, exercise and drinking alcohol. But they said the large sample size of their study enabled them to isolate meat from other factors.
The researchers noted that a small amount of fresh red meat appeared to be beneficial. That, they said, is probably because meat is an important source of protein, iron, zinc, B vitamins and other nutrients. The drawback is cholesterol and saturated fatty acids, as well as the potential for too much iron.
In general, diets high in processed meat were linked to other unhealthy choices, the researchers said. People who ate the most processed meat ate the least produce and were more likely to smoke. Men who ate a lot of meat also tended to have a high alcohol consumption.
They did not find an association with eating poultry.
The European study cites another article published a year ago in the Archives of Internal Medicine, which said that eating any amount or type of red meat increased the chances of early death among more than 110,000 adults tracked more than 20 years.
For instance, adding a 3-ounce serving of red meat -- a piece of steak about the size of a cassette tape -- to your daily diet was associated with a 13 percent greater chance of dying during the course of the study. And an extra daily serving of processed red meat was linked to a 20 percent higher risk of death during the study.
That study came to somewhat different conclusions than the European one.
"In contrast to the U.S. results, we observed a consistent association between processed meat consumption and total mortality, but not between red meat consumption and total mortality," the researchers from the European study wrote. They said that processed meats have higher levels of saturated fats than fresh meat, with fat as high as 50 percent in sausages.
"Also, processed meat is treated by salting, curing or smoking," they wrote. "These processes, however, lead to an increased intake of carcinogens or their precursors."
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