Study: Red meat, processed meat hike heart disease risk

Drop the steak knife: Unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption leads to a slightly higher risk of heart disease and premature death, according to a new study from researchers at Cornell and Northwestern University.

Their paper, Associations of Processed Meat, Unprocessed Red Meat, Poultry or Fish Intake With Incident Cardiovascular Disease and All-Cause Mortality, was published Feb. 3 in JAMA Internal Medicine. The lead author is Victor Zhong, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell.

The study found that eating two servings per week of unprocessed red meat, processed meat or poultry was linked to a 3% to 7% higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Eating two servings per week of unprocessed red meat or processed meat was associated with a 3% higher risk of all causes of death.

“Modifying intake of these animal protein foods may be an important dietary strategy to help reduce risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death at population level,” Zhong said.

“It’s a small difference, but it’s worth trying to reduce [consumption of] red meat and processed meat,” said senior author Norrina Allen, associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Red meat consumption is also consistently linked to other health problems like cancer.”

The new findings come on the heels of a controversial meta-analysis published last November that recommended people not reduce their consumption of unprocessed red meat and processed meat. “Everyone interpreted that it was OK to eat red meat,” Allen said, “but I don’t think that is what the science supports.”

Said Zhong: “Our study shows the link to cardiovascular disease and mortality was robust.”

Within this study, they found a 4% higher risk of cardiovascular disease for people who ate two servings per week of poultry, but the evidence so far is not sufficient to make a clear recommendation about poultry intake, Zhong said. The relationship may be related to the method of cooking the chicken and consumption of the skin rather than the chicken meat itself. Fried chicken and fish have been positively linked to chronic diseases, Zhong said.

The researchers suggest dietary alternatives such as seafood and plant-based sources of protein and other key nutrients to lessen one’s risk of heart disease and premature death. “Our study findings support current dietary guidelines that recommend limiting processed meat and unprocessed red meat intake,” Zhong said. “People can get needed nutrients from various other foods. Take protein for example: People can choose egg whites, fish, legumes, whole grains, and nuts to replace processed meat and unprocessed red meat.”

The study featured a large, diverse sample from six cohorts and included follow-up data from up to three decades. There were 29,682 participants (44.4% men, 30.7% non-white); the participants’ mean age at the start of the study was 53.7.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association and the Feinberg School of Medicine.

Stephen D’Angelo is assistant director for communications for the College of Human Ecology.

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