Women who eat a lot of grilled, smoked and barbecued meats and develop breast cancer may be more likely to die from their cancer than those who eat less of these foods, a U.S. study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill suggests.
A higher intake of barbecued, smoked or grilled meat before diagnosis was also associated with 23 percent higher odds of death from all causes, the study found.
Of the three cooking options, smoking may be the worst. Routinely eating smoked beef, lamb and pork was tied to a 17 percent greater risk of death from all causes and 23 percent higher odds of dying from breast cancer.
Carcinogens in grilled, smoked meat
There are many carcinogens in grilled or smoked meats; one of the most common are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), which are formed during grilling and smoking of meat.
Women may be exposed to these carcinogens by cigarette smoke or air pollution, which are associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Some research has suggested exposure to these chemicals through grilled or smoked meat can increase the risk of breast cancer, but the current study offers some of the first evidence suggesting it also influences survival odds.
Several factors may influence the formation of PAHs including ‘doneness’ and meat type - higher fat content may result in the formation of more PAHs.
For the current study, researchers interviewed 1,508 women diagnosed with breast cancer about their eating habits in 1996 or 1997 and then questioned them again five years later.
After following half of the women for at least 17 years, there were 597 deaths including 237 fatalities from breast cancer.
High intake of barbecued meat increases risk, poultry and fish protective
Compared to women who consistently ate only small amounts of grilled, barbecued or smoked meat, women who consumed a lot of these foods both before and after their diagnosis were 31 percent more likely to die during the study period.
Women who included poultry and fish in their diet before or after their breast cancer diagnosis were 45 percent less likely to die during the study than women who didn't eat these foods.
Lower levels of saturated fats in chicken and fish relative to red meats might help explain this.
But it’s also possible that chicken and fish have a protective effect simply because women eat less red meat. Increasing fish or poultry intake, without reducing red meat intake, is likely to be less beneficial for cancer prevention.
One limitation of the study is that it relied on women to report how often they consumed different foods and didn't assess portion sizes or the number of times they ate meats each week. And the study was observational in nature; it cannot prove that different types of meat increase the risk of breast cancer or dying from breast cancer.
Still, the findings suggest women should pay attention to how they cook their food to minimize their exposure to carcinogenic chemicals.
These chemicals can be produced from wood smoke or when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, creating flames and smoke. The fattier the meat, the higher the chemical levels will be.
Source: Journal of the National Cancer Institute, online January 4, 2017.
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