Eating Meat, Including Chicken, Linked to Heart Disease Risk in Study

Eating meat has been linked to heart disease in the latest study to suggest the food could pose some risk to our health.

People who ate red and or processed meat—excluding fish—twice a week were found to have a 3 to 7 percent higher chance of developing cardiovascular disease, and a 3 percent higher risk of what is known as all-cause mortality, or dying of any condition. A portion of meat was defined as 4 ounces.

To arrive at their conclusion, the team looked at data from six studies conducted in the U.S., involving 29,682 people in total. The data was first collected between 1985 and 2002, when the volunteers had an average age of 53, with participants followed-up in 2019. At the start of the study, the respondents answered questions about which foods they ate, and how often, as well as other variables like whether they smoked or exercised.

The team acknowledged their study was limited in several ways, including that the participants may not have accurately reported their food habits.

Victor Zhong, lead author of the study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine and assistant professor of nutritional sciences from Cornell University, told Newsweek they were surprised to find that eating chicken was linked with heart disease, when past studies have found eating more chicken is linked with a lower risk. This could be down to the method of cooking, such as frying, or eating the skin rather than the meat itself. But he said food preparation methods weren't looked at across the six studies, meaning the team were unable to separate fried and skin-on chicken in the data.

Zhong said researchers have long been interested in whether eating food from animal sources is linked with heart disease and the risk of death, "but scientific evidence has been inconsistent."

Understanding the link between animal proteins and heart disease "has critical public health and clinical implications, which is relevant to most people's daily life and health," he said, pointing out that 40 percent of protein intake and 26 percent of total energy comes from meat and fish.

Zhong said the findings are not new, but the work used high-quality data and therefore "addresses inconsistent recommendations and controversies around animal protein foods, in particular, unprocessed red meat and processed meat."

Last year, for instance, a controversial paper claimed there is little evidence to show that cutting red or processed meat is beneficial to the average person's health. At the time, experts in the field told Newsweek the finding could unnecessarily confuse the public.

"Our study findings support current dietary guidelines that recommend low or no intake of unprocessed red meat and processed meat," said Zhong. "People can choose other sources of protein including fish, seafood, and plant-based sources of protein such as nuts and legumes, including beans and peas."

Asked whether people should opt for plant-based diets, such as veganism, he said: "Choosing a vegan diet based on this study is too extreme. There are many good foods of animal sources such as egg whites, unfried fish or seafood, low-fat dairy products, and possibly unfried skinless chicken."

However, he said cutting down on red and processed meat "can be a wise dietary behavior," adding: "Current evidence generally suggests that consuming unprocessed red meat and processed meat is associated with an increased risk of many chronic diseases."

Asked whether all processed meat is equally risky, say an upmarket Italian prosciutto versus a burger from a fast-food restaurant, Zhong said: "All types of processed meat are risky, but risk level may differ.

"For example, sodium content can vary greatly. Some types of processed meat have higher fat content than others. Carcinogenic compounds can be formed during the smoking process in smoked meat. Nonetheless, avoiding all types of processed meat is recommended and in line with the current dietary guideline recommendations."

Experts in the field not involved in the study welcomed the research.

Gunter Kuhnle, professor of Nutrition and Food Science at the U.K.'s University of Reading, said the study was "very well and thoroughly conducted."

However, he said it was limited because their diet was assessed just once "and while this is often a good estimate of the typical diet of participants, it is likely that this has changed over time."

Kuhnle went on: "It is interesting that there was no beneficial association for fish intake, but that might be—as the authors explain—due to the fact that they could not distinguish between different types of fish preparation. In general, a beneficial effect could have been expected."

"It is important to keep in mind the red and processed meat are not only associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, but also of cancer," he said.

Kuhnle explained that the risk to health from eating meat is very small on an individual level and "there is no need to stop eating meat."

But these percentages of risk are important on a population level, he said. "With about 1 million people being diagnosed with heart disease every year, even a small reduction in absolute risk can have a considerable effect and reduce the number of people suffering."

Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior teaching fellow at the U.K.'s Aston Medical School, Aston University, who did not work on the paper, said: "It can be difficult for people to make sense of what can seem to be conflicting messages on food. In this case eating moderate amounts of meat, including red meat (less than 3 ounces per day), is likely to be safe, and in some groups, it can supply valuable amounts of iron and vitamin B12.

"However, in the interest of sustainability as well as health, reducing meat intake in line with this study to the recommended less than 70g [2.5 ounces] per day would be sensible. But if someone chooses to reduce meat further to do this, alternative sources of nutrients such as iron e.g. seeds, lentils, beans or dark green vegetables with a source of vitamin C such as green vegetables or citrus fruit, to help its absorption is key.

"Although it seems research like this seems to contradict what was written before, if these studies are looked at together, the overall message is fairly consistent—we should eat meat in moderation as part of a varied and balanced diet."

Victoria Taylor, senior dietitian for the U.K.-based charity the British Heart Foundation, told Newsweek: "Hang on to your steak knife for now. When it comes to lowering our risk of heart and circulatory diseases, it's our diet as a whole that will make more of a difference. While reducing our red and processed meat intake is recommended—you don't have to banish red meat from the dining table.

"Most of us could benefit from a traditional Mediterranean-style diet. This means eating less meat, and more fish and plant-based protein, such as lentils, nuts and seeds—but also plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains."

burger, meat, fries, fast food, stock, getty
A stock image shows a man holding a burger in his hands. Researchers have investigated the potential health risks of eating meat. Getty

Uncommon Knowledge

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

Newsweek is committed to challenging conventional wisdom and finding connections in the search for common ground.

About the writer

Kashmira Gander is Deputy Science Editor at Newsweek. Her interests include health, gender, LGBTQIA+ issues, human rights, subcultures, music, and lifestyle. Her work has also been published in the The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, The i Newspaper, the London Evening Standard and International Business Times UK.

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