Food for Thought: The Red Meat—Breast Cancer Link

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Dear Clinician,

Here is the information you requested (sourced from Journal Watch). Nurses' Health Study II data suggest that red meat consumption increases the risk for premenopausal hormone receptor-positive breast cancer.

Although red meat intake has been associated with increased risk for breast cancer, does tumor hormone receptor status affect that risk? To address this question, investigators followed a cohort of 90,659 premenopausal women in the Nurses’ Health Study II (age range at baseline, 26–46) who answered food frequency questionnaires in 1991, 1995, and 1999. For documented cases of breast cancer, researchers consulted pathology reports to obtain information about estrogen receptor (ER) and progesterone receptor (PR) status.

During 12 years of follow-up, 1021 cases of invasive breast cancer were documented. Among the 789 cases for which ER and PR status could be verified, 512 were ER-positive and PR-positive (ER+/PR+), and 167 were ER-negative and PR-negative (ER–/PR–). In analyses adjusted for known breast cancer risk factors, the highest quintile of red meat consumption (1.5 servings/day) was associated with nearly twice the risk for ER+/PR+ breast tumors (relative risk, 1.97) as the lowest quintile (3 servings/week). No association between dietary red meat and risk for ER–/PR– cancers was observed. The authors postulate that the link between red meat intake and breast cancer is mediated by carcinogenic compounds related to processing and cooking, residual hormones from livestock treatment, or heme iron, any of which might stimulate the development of hormone receptor–positive tumors.

Comment: To help patients put studies linking dietary intake and disease in perspective is challenging. Individual dietary items most likely account for only part of the risk picture, albeit a part that can be modified. At this point, it seems most reasonable to recommend a varied diet with emphasis on portion control rather than avoiding any one food item in the hope of decreasing cancer risk.

— Diane E. Judge, APN/CNP

Published in Journal Watch Women's Health January 11, 2007


Cho E et al. Red meat intake and risk of breast cancer among premenopausal women. Arch Intern Med 2006 Nov 13; 166:2253-9.

Copyright © 2007. Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved.

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