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Jun 03, 2019

Red and Processed Meats Increase Risk for Heart Disease

Not all animal products threaten heart health, finds European study of 500,000 adults.

Despite their fat and cholesterol content, not all animal products are bad for heart health, according to a long-term study of nearly half a million European adults. Findings confirmed that red and processed meats may increase risk for heart disease, as previous research has shown, but that other items like fish, yogurt, cheese and eggs help protect the heart.

Published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation, this study explored the impact of animal foods on risk for heart disease—the leading cause of death worldwide.

According to the World Health Organization, heart disease and stroke are the world’s biggest killers, causing more than 15 million deaths in 2016. Diet has a major impact on risk for heart disease, and healthy eating habits can significantly reduce cardiovascular risk. However, the role of animal foods—which can be high in fat and cholesterol—are largely debated when it comes to heart health.

To learn more, researchers analyzed data from the EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) cohort, which tracks the health and lifestyle data of European adults. The study was conducted across 10 European countries and uses a combination of surveys and medical exams to follow participants’ health over time. First started in 1992, the study includes more than half a million participants, all of whom were followed for an average of 13 years.

The recent analysis, however, included only those participants with complete survey data, which totaled 409,885 adults.

During the follow-up period, 7,198 experienced heart attack or died from heart disease. Researchers found that for every 100 grams of red or processed meat that individuals consumed per day, their risk for heart disease increased by 19%. Consumption of yogurt, cheese and eggs, however, had the opposite impact and reduced cardiovascular risk. Researchers also found that red and processed meat consumption was associated with higher blood pressure and cholesterol levels, while cheese was linked to lower cholesterol.

The good news, according to authors, is that small dietary changes can have a big impact on heart health. Based on study projections, replacing just 100 calories a day of red or processed meats with fish, yogurt, cheese or eggs could lower risk for heart disease by twenty percent.

Because of the study design, findings can’t prove cause and effect, according to experts. However, they add to a growing body of evidence linking red and processed meats to increased heart risks. Findings also support consumption of fish, dairy products and eggs as part of a heart-healthy diet.

Questions for You to Consider

  • What is a heart-healthy diet?

  • A heart-healthy diet is full of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains and includes low-fat dairy, fish and nuts as part of a balanced diet. It’s important to limit intake of added sugars, salt (sodium) and bad fats (saturated and trans fats).

  • Is red meat bad for my heart?
  • Red meat contains high levels of fat and cholesterol, which can clog our arteries and increase risk for heart disease. Research also suggests that a substance contained in red meat, called carnitine, may increase levels of the chemical TMAO, which increases cardiovascular risk. To promote heart health, it’s important to limit consumption of red meat to once a week or less and maintain a balanced diet full of lean protein, fresh vegetables and whole grains.

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