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Jun 11, 2014 02:38 PM EDT

Red Meat May Increase The Risk of Breast Cancer

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Women who consume hamburgers, steaks and other red meat frequently may have a slightly higher risk of developing breast cancer, according to a recent study the Associated Press reported.

Researchers from Harvard University found that women who regularly indulge in their red meat cravings increase their risk for breast cancer by nearly 25 percent. However, replacing a daily serving of red meat with a combination of fish, legumes, nuts and poultry appeared to lower the risk of breast cancer by 14 percent.

"Cutting down processed meat, limiting intake of red meat, and substituting a combination of poultry, fish, legumes and nuts as protein sources for red meat during early life seems beneficial for the prevention of breast cancer," Maryam Farvid, lead researcher of the study, told HealthDay News.

Scientists said they believe red meat is linked to breast cancer because  proteins in "red meat speed up cell division and tumor growth; chemicals such as nitrates in processed meats are already classified as probable carcinogens," the AP reported.

For the study, researchers analyzed data from more than 88,000 women aged 26 to 45 who had filled in surveys in 1991. They looked at the dietary habits of the study participants every few years going forward.

They followed the women for 20 years, during which time more than 2,600 of them developed cancer.

Researchers found that compared with women who had one serving of red meat per week, those who ate 1.5 servings per day had 22 percent higher risk of breast cancer. And each additional daily serving of red meat seemed to increase the risk of breast cancer another 13 percent, Farvid said.

However, they found that eating more poultry lowered the risk of developing breast cancer. They also found that substituting one serving a day of poultry for one serving a day of red meat reduced the risk of breast cancer by 17 percent overall and by 24 percent among postmenopausal women.

"Decreasing consumption of red meat and replacing it with other healthy dietary sources of protein, such as chicken, turkey, fish, beans, lentils, peas and nuts, may have important public health implications," Farvid said.

The findings were recently published in the British journal BMJ.

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