New Study “Gets the Picture” of What Meat Does to the Heart

We’ve been told for decades that red meat is bad for heart health. Then a study reported that there was solid proof that there was no need to limit red meat. The study was controversial, disputed, and some even called it dangerous. On closer examination, red flags popped up about the study’s funding, which was tied to the beef industry.

Our team has always suggested eating a diet with a lot of variation, vegetables, fruit, healthy grains and protein. Meat can play a role in that, but that study did seem suspect at best. Moderation is the key.

A new study with nearly 20,000 participants wanted to get to the “heart” of the matter. They used imaging to actually look at people’s heart function in relation to how much meat they ate. And the researchers showed that the more red and processed meat a person ate, the worse their heart functioned.  

Previous studies have shown links between greater red meat consumption and increased risk of heart attacks or dying from heart disease,” said study author Dr. Zahra Raisi-Estabragh of Queen Mary Univ. of London. “For the first time, we examined the relationships between meat consumption and imaging measures of heart health. This may help us to understand the mechanisms underlying the previously observed connections with cardiovascular disease.”

Taking images of the heart meant that they weren’t relying on the numbers of heart attacks, strokes or other heart problems being reported but actually seeing physical function before people felt unwell. Participants tracked their own diets during the study. The scientists used cardiovascular magnetic resonance assessments to look at heart functions and the shape and texture of the organ. They also measured the elasticity of blood vessels. They considered people’s age, sex, wealth, lifestyle and other medical factors and adjusted their comparisons accordingly to focus specifically on meat.

People who ate larger amounts of processed and red meat had stiffer arteries, smaller ventricles and poorer heart function. On the other hand, they found that people who ate large amounts of oily fish had better heart function and their arteries were more elastic.

They said their find could only partly be explained by meat’s impact on blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar and weight. Those factors alone didn’t fully explain the high impact they were seeing.

Our study suggests that these four factors do play a role in the links between meat intake and heart health, but they are not the full story,” said Dr. Raisi-Estabragh. The researchers believe that their find might support the evidence that eating meat impacts the body’s microbiome and health that starts in the gut.

Dr. Raisi-Estabragh pointed out that not every diet is the same; how you cook and balance your meals matters.

This has to be interpreted in the context of other evidence and other studies that have considered all the different aspects of diet, which may also influence how meat impacts health,” she said. “So, for example, red meat consumed in the context of a Mediterranean diet may be okay. There are a lot of other variables at play that need to be considered.”

In the end, this seems to support the idea of moderation and balance. A healthy diet is one you can sustain and enjoy that has plenty of green growing things. But, in the end, less is better than more when it comes to meat.   

Banner image: Zac Cain via Unsplash
April 23, 2021
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