Red meat and poultry not linked to heart disease and early death (but processed meat is).

Somi Igbene PhD ANutrApril 5, 2021

Finally, a robust study that vindicates red meat and poultry!

I know you’ve seen those attention-grabbing headlines that warn of heart disease and early death if you eat animal foods, particularly red meat.

It appears those headlines and science publications are somewhat false – old news for some of us.

However, if you avoid red meat and meat in general for fear of heart disease and early death, this ‘new’ study should hopefully reduce your concerns.

Ready to find out what’s new?

Let’s jump in!

Background

You may or may not agree, but the fact is that meat and poultry have been part of our diet for centuries.

Heart disease became prominent in the US in the 60s and rapidly the leading cause of death. Researchers began investigating heart disease causes, and in the 70s, Ancel Keys published his ground-breaking seven countries study.

He found that diets rich in saturated fat and cholesterol increased heart disease and early death risk. Some observational studies after Ancel Keys’ showed similar findings; others didn’t, and many still don’t.

Despite the inconsistent evidence, nutrition guidelines since the 70s, both in the US and UK, still suggest reducing our saturated fat and cholesterol intake, and by default, meat and poultry intake.

Recent evidence shows that saturated fat and cholesterol (and meat and poultry) are not the problems, but it has been challenging to change the narrative.

How the researchers conducted the study

Using validated food frequency questionnaires, researchers in The Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) Study monitored the diets of 134, 297 individuals across 21 low-, middle-, and high-income countries.

What the researchers found

Participants who ate large quantities (>250g/ week) of unprocessed red meat and poultry didn’t have a higher risk of developing heart disease or dying than participants who ate smaller quantities (< 50g/week).

However, participants who ate large quantities of processed meats (>150g/ week) had a 51% higher risk of death and 46% higher risk of CVD than participants who didn’t eat them.

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What the research means for you

This study is an observational study meaning that it’s based on the information the participants provided to the researchers.

Many people don’t precisely remember what they ate two days ago, much less portion sizes or quantities, so we must interpret their findings carefully.

That said, the researchers considered these factors and still didn’t find a link between unprocessed red meat or poultry intake and heart disease or early death.

Eating unprocessed red meat and poultry doesn’t necessarily increase your risk of heart disease or death.  So, there’s no need to stop eating them for “health” reasons. Conversely, eating processed meats frequently increases your risk of heart disease and death.

Unprocessed meats include fresh cuts of meat such as beef, veal, pork and lamb. Processed meats include hot dogs, salami, pepperoni, and deli meats.

No single component of your diet is the cause of heart disease.

The bottom line is that no single component of your diet causes heart disease – the overall content of your diet is what determines your heart disease risk.

Rather than unnecessarily cutting food groups, base your diet on whole, unprocessed foods and eat them in the correct portions to minimise your heart disease risk.

Remember, meat and poultry aren’t the villains – a diet rich in processed foods is.

REFERENCES

  1. Mann, N.J. (2018) A brief history of meat in the human diet and current health implications. Meat Science, 144, 169-179.
  2. Jones, D.S., and Greene, J.A. (2013) The decline and rise of coronary heart disease: Understanding public health catastrophism. American Journal of Public Health, 103(7), 1207-1218.
  3. Pett, K.D., Willett, W.C., Vartiainen, E., and Katz, D.L. (2017) The seven countries study. European Heart Journal, 38(42), 3119-3121.
  4. Al-Shaar, L, Satija, A., Wang, D.D., Rimm, E.B., Smith-Warner, S.A., Stampfer, M.J., Hu, F.B., Willett, W. (2020) Red meat intake and risk of coronary heart disease among US men: prospective cohort study. BMJ, 371.
  5. De Sousza, R., Mente, A., Maroleanu, A., Cozma, A.I., Ha, V., Kishibe, T., Uleryk, E., Budylowski, P., Shunemann, H., Beyene, J., Anand, S.S. (2015) Intake of saturated and trans unsaturated fatty acids and risk of all cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes: systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. BMJ, 351.
  6. Malhotra, A., Redberg, R.F., and Meier, P. (2016) Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 51(15),
  7. Gershuni, V.M (2018) Saturated fat; part of a healthy diet. Current Nutrition Reports, 7(3), 85-96.
  8. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Available: https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov. Accessed: 05 April 2021.
  9. SACN Dietary References Values for Energy. Available: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/sacn-dietary-reference-values-for-energy. Accessed: 05 April 2021.
  10. Iqbal, R., Dehghan, M., Mente, A., Rangarajan, S., Wielgosz, A., Avezum, A., Seron, P., AlHabib, K.F., Lopez-Jaramillo, P., Swaninathan, S., Mohammadifard, N., Zatonska, K., Bo, H., Varma, R.P., Rahman, O., Yusufali, A., Lu, Y., Ismail, N., Rosengren, A., Imeryuz, N., Yeates, K., Chifamba, J., Dans, A., Kumar, R., Xiaoyun, L., Tsolekile, L., Khatib, R., Diaz, R., Teo, K., Yusuf, S. (2021) Associations of unprocessed and processed meat intake with mortality and cardiovascular disease in 21 countries [Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) Study]: a prospective cohort study. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa448

 

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