Behind the Headlines: Does eating red meat raise CHD risk?

Eating processed meat substantially raises the risk of CHD and diabetes, according to newspaper reports.

Disease risk: red meat is safer to eat than previously thought (Photograph: iStockPhoto)
Disease risk: red meat is safer to eat than previously thought (Photograph: iStockPhoto)

Researchers from Harvard Medical School assessed 20 studies involving over 1.2 million people. They found the risk of CHD increased by 42 per cent among those eating 50g of processed meat - the equivalent of one sausage - per day. The risk of diabetes also rose 19 per cent.

Researchers said further work was needed to show how processed red meats raised the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Should people avoid eating red meat?
Contrary to previous studies, researchers found no link between eating unprocessed red meat and disease risk, suggesting red meat is safer to eat than previously thought. Processed and unprocessed red meat contain similar levels of cholesterol and saturated fat, so these components may not be responsible for the increased disease risk, the researchers noted.

Instead, the 'substantially higher' sodium and nitrate preservative levels in processed meats could contribute to increased CVD and diabetes risk and account in part for the findings, the researchers suggested.

Lead author Dr Renata Micha said: 'Processed meats such as bacon, salami, sausages and hot dogs may be the most important to avoid.'

But she added: 'Based on our findings, eating one serving per week or less would be associated with relatively small risk.'

Victoria Taylor, senior heart health dietician at the British Heart Foundation, said: 'If you like red meat, this can still be included as part of a balanced heart healthy diet.'

RCGP chairman Professor Steve Field said the college continued to advise eating plenty of fruit and vegetables as part of a balanced diet and exercise.

Informing patients

- Processed meat, but not unprocessed red meat, increases the risk of CHD and diabetes.

- This is likely to be a result of high salt and preservative levels, rather than fat content.

- People should choose lean cuts of meat, avoid adding salt and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables.

Stephen Robinson

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Circulation Online 2010

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