Recent studies have demonstrated a link between red meat consumption and the risk of several diseases. One 2021 study examined the dietary intake of over 1.4 million people over 30 years and found that those who ate more red meat had a higher incidence of heart disease. Poultry intake, however, did not affect heart disease risk.
Let’s look at this research and see what the results mean for you, your diet, and your heart health.
A look at heart disease statistics
The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that heart disease, also known as cardiovascular disease (CVD), has been the number one cause of death worldwide for the past 20 years. Even more concerning than its place at the top is the rapid rise in fatal heart disease cases, up from 2 million in 2000 to 9 million in 2019.
If you have heart disease or it runs in your family, it’s worth looking at the available measures to stay healthy and avoid becoming one of the statistics. The good news is that researchers are continually discovering new ways you can safeguard your heart health, and the 2021 study gives us valuable insight.
The latest research on red meat and heart disease
This study was a meta-analysis, a large study that reviews a group of smaller studies to get a more mathematically significant number of cases to analyze. The scientists combed through information from 13 studies (including a whopping 1,427,989 participants) to see what they could learn about meat intake and heart disease rates.
The results confirmed what other studies have previously shown: there is indeed a correlation between red meat intake and heart health. And it’s not just the bacon that we all know shouldn’t be on our plate every day: both unprocessed meat (steak and ribs) and processed meat (bacon, sausage, and deli meat) were linked to higher levels of heart disease.
With every 50 grams of processed red meat that people ate each day, their risk of heart disease rose by 18%. Every 50 grams of unprocessed red meat per day was associated with a 9% increased risk of heart disease. Studies did not reveal a significant relationship between poultry and heart disease risk. What do 50 grams of meat look like? It’s equal to 1.8 ounces or a 2 x 2-inch piece of steak that is ½ inch thick. (Not a large serving!)
A previous study conducted in 2019 at the Cleveland Clinic found that people who ate more red meat had higher levels of a chemical called TMAO linked to heart disease. Although the researchers aren’t sure exactly how it works in the body, they think it may cause more significant cholesterol accumulation on blood vessel walls or lead to more platelets in the blood. Platelets are critical to blood clotting, and too many platelets put you at a higher risk of forming clots (which is the mechanism by which strokes and heart attacks happen).
So what do these results mean for you? It’s a good idea to lower your intake of red meat to achieve the best heart health.
Protein sources other than red meat
Although it’s fine to enjoy a steak or sausage now and then, limit red meat intake to a couple of times a week. For the rest of your meals, try the following protein sources in place of red meat:
- Lean, unprocessed pork (such as pork chops and pork roast)
- Seafood (heart-healthy choices include salmon, tuna, mackerel, and sardines)
- Soy (such as tofu, edamame, and seitan)
In addition to watching where your protein comes from, be sure to include other foods that link to a lower risk of heart disease. These include foods high in fiber, omega-3 fats, and antioxidants such as olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains.
Check out the ScriptSave WellRx Grocery Guidance App for nutrition information and more ways to start a heart-healthy eating plan.
Cara is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who helps clients reach optimal health and manage chronic conditions with smart food choices. Her work has been featured in various online publications, including WellRx, Road Runner Sports, VeryWell, and Everyday Health, in nutrition, parenting, pediatrics, and healthcare devices. Cara lives with her family and a collection of animals on a farm in southern Ohio.