Sorry, red meat lovers: New research confirms risk to health, mortality

Eating red and processed meat is linked to higher rates of heart disease and death, says a large new study — a finding that would be met with a big “duh” if it didn’t come on the heels of a controversial report suggesting people don't necessarily need to eat less meat.

The situation

The new research, published Monday in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that eating two servings of red meat or processed meat weekly is associated with a 3% to 7% higher risk of cardiovascular disease, such as heart attack and stroke, and a 3% higher risk of death from all causes.

Eating two servings of poultry weekly was also linked to higher heart disease risk, but not overall mortality, said the study, which was conducted by researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.

Fish was not associated with ill health effects.

Who’s behind the study

The latest study was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, the American Heart Association Strategically Focused Research Networks and the Feinberg School of Medicine. The report’s authors included researchers from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and McMaster University in Canada, among others. The senior author of the study was Norrina Allen, associate professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Northwestern’s medical school.

The findings

The study’s authors urged more research on poultry before making any recommendations on intake because the study didn’t look at how the food was prepared, such as grilled or fried.

The findings are consistent with prior research that has linked meat with poor health outcomes but can feel like whiplash given a report published in October in the Annals of Internal Medicine that said there is insufficient evidence to recommend people reduce meat intake. Some public health experts questioned the accuracy of those conclusions, and some of the authors were later called out for not disclosing industry funding on other projects.

Why it matters

Such conflicting conclusions can paralyze consumers trying to make healthful choices, erode trust in nutrition science or encourage some people to throw up their hands and indulge in steaks and burgers with abandon.

What it means

The study examined whether people who eat meat are more likely to get sick and die, whereas the fall report summarized existing literature to determine if there is enough evidence to show reducing meat intake makes a difference.

Asked for a takeaway, professor Allen said: “I hope people consider eating red and processed meat in moderation and try and consume more fruits and vegetables and whole grains.”

White Meat as Bad as Red Meat for Cholesterol says New Study

It goes a few steps further than prior studies to isolate the effect of meat by controlling for individual risk factors and other aspects of a person’s diet, Allen said.

While the increased risk from two weekly servings is small — a serving being, for example, 4 ounces of unprocessed red meat or two strips of bacon — the risk increases the more meat people eat, the study said. The study does not establish causality.

About the participants

Nearly 30,000 men and women were included in the Northwestern study, which followed participants from six different long-term research cohorts for up to 30 years.

The research has several limitations. A major one was that it was based on a self-assessment of what participants ate during a month at the start of the project, so any changes they made to their diets through the years were not taken into account. Participants were followed for a median of 19 years.

Allen said it’s notable that there remained a significant relationship between illness and death and people's diets decades before.

“There is still a risk based on what you ate 20 years ago,” she said.

— This report was compiled by ArLuther Lee for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.