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Feb 13, 2020

Eating Meat Linked to Slightly Higher Risk of Heart Disease

Fish seems to be heart healthier choice of protein, study suggests.

By CardioSmart News

Research has shown that processed red meats—foods like hot dogs, sausage, and many deli meats—can raise the risk of heart disease and possible death. But what about unprocessed red meat, poultry, and fish, which are less studied? 

It’s a question that researchers at Northwestern University and Cornell University sought to answer by examining the dietary patterns and long-term health data from nearly 30,000 participants in six well-known studies. The participants did not have heart disease at the start of the analysis. The study, recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggests that a higher intake of unprocessed red meat or processed meat is linked with a heightened risk of developing heart disease or dying. 

In fact, eating two servings of red meat, processed meat, or poultry, but not fish, on a weekly basis was linked to a 3% to 7% greater chance of developing cardiovascular disease, including blockages in the heart’s arteries, stroke or heart failure. Consuming the same amount of meat, but not poultry, was also associated with a 3% higher chance of premature death. Fish was not linked to slight jumps in heart disease or death. 

Researchers said that while these are small increases, it’s still worth trying to reduce the amount of red meat and other processed meats like pepperoni, hot dogs, and sausage consumed and eat more fish. It’s also likely that people who consume more than two servings of processed meat or unprocessed red meat per week would have greater heart risks, they added.

Participants, who were 54 years of age on average at the start of the study and of whom more than half were female, were followed for up to three decades (a median of 19 years). Dietary data was collected between 1985 and 2002. Researchers used a validated food questionnaire and defined one serving as “4 [ounces] of unprocessed red meat or poultry or 3 [ounces] of fish. For processed meat, 1 serving consisted of 2 slices of bacon, 2 small links of sausage, or 1 hot dog.” Of the 29,682 participants, 6,963 (23%) ended up having a cardiovascular event such as coronary heart disease, stroke or heart failure, and 8,875 (30%) died of any cause, not necessarily due to heart disease. 

The median servings per week of the four foods studied was: 
1½ servings of processed meat (ranging from ½ to nearly 4 servings)
3 servings of unprocessed red meat (ranging from about 1½ to 5 servings) 
2 servings of poultry (ranging from 1 to 3 servings) 
 Just over 1½ servings of fish (ranging from 1 to nearly 3½ servings)

Compared with participants who ate less, those who had a higher total intake of these four foods tended to be younger, male, non-Hispanic black, and more likely to have cardiovascular risk factors, including smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol, and greater body mass index.

It’s an important study, according to the authors, because processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry and fish are major components of what Americans eat, “representing more than 40% of protein intake, 42% of dietary cholesterol intake and 26% of total energy intake in adults,” authors explained. 

“In spite of the small effect sizes, findings of this study have critical public health implications because dietary behaviors are modifiable and most people consume these four food types on a daily or weekly basis,” they state. 

Because of the study design, the findings can’t prove cause and effect. In addition, the study relied on participants’ self-report of eating habits that were assessed once, and dietary habits may have changed over time. Also, there were few details on how the food was prepared, for example whether the chicken was fried or baked. More research is needed to help clarify what’s behind these associations.

This research comes on the heels of guidance published in October 2019 that  seems to suggest people do not need to curb meat intake. Still, the findings of this study add to a growing body of evidence that ties eating meat to greater heart risks. Previous studies have also linked red meat consumption to other health problems, including some cancers.

Read the full text:Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry, or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality,” JAMA Intern Med, Feb. 03, 2020.

Infographic: Heart-Healthy Nutrition

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