In the last few decades, many dietary guidelines have suggested limiting the consumption of red meat due to associations with potential health risks, including an increase in cardiovascular disease. However, more recent research suggests there may be more to the story than simply that meat is bad for heart health.
One potential factor in red meat affecting heart health is saturated fatty acids. A recent scoping review of systematic reviews on dietary fat intake and health outcomes found no association between total fat, monounsaturated fatty acid (MUFA), polyunsaturated fatty acid (PUFA), and saturated fatty acid intake with risk of chronic diseases when comparing highest and lowest intakes. However, there was an association with total trans-fatty acid intake. The researchers also detailed the systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials demonstrating that replacing saturated fats with PUFA and/or MUFA did improve blood lipids and glycemic control.
Many recent reviews looking directly at meat consumption also point to a need to re-evaluate this theory, including meat consumption as a risk factor. A recent prospective cohort study involving 21 countries delineated meat types and their associations with heart health. They compared unprocessed red meat, poultry, and processed meat intake with mortality and major cardiovascular risk factors. The researchers found no associations of higher intake of unprocessed red meat and poultry with risk of total mortality or major cardiovascular disease. However, higher intake of processed meats did demonstrate a greater risk of total mortality and major cardiovascular disease with a hazard ratio of 1.51 and 1.46, respectively.
A systemic review was conducted of cohort studies that assessed an association between unprocessed red meat and processed meat consumption and all-cause mortality, along with cardiometabolic outcomes. The researchers review of the studies found only very small effects from reducing unprocessed red meat intake of three servings with cardiovascular mortality, stroke, myocardial infarction (MI), and diabetes, but not with all-cause mortality or cardiovascular disease. Reduction of processed meat intake led to a very small effect on all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, stroke, MI, and diabetes, but not cardiovascular disease. The researchers also determined that the certainty of the evidence was low. Overall, the evidence was not strong enough to determine whether unprocessed and/or processed red meat intake has a causal effect on heart disease.
Likewise, a systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies on dietary patterns found low to very low certainty of evidence for dietary patterns in red meat and processed meat equating to a lower risk of cardiometabolic outcomes. Another systematic review and meta-analysis of data from randomized controlled trials found no effect of consuming red meat on blood lipids, lipoproteins, or blood pressure when comparing the consumption of <0.5 servings of red meat per day and 0.5 servings per day.
The latest research points to reversing the long-held belief that meat is definitively bad for heart health. There are many factors involved in determining the right diet for an individual, including their personal risk factors, as well as their preferences. For many individuals, consuming unprocessed meat as part of a colorful, whole foods–based eating pattern may not have as large of an impact on their heart health as previously believed. In addition, making lifestyle changes and incorporating supplements when applicable may support cardiovascular health.*
By Kendra Whitmire