New analysis of long term data on nearly 30,000 people found a small but significant risk of death from any cause tied to eating two servings of processed meat or unprocessed red meat each week.
Similar risks for cardiovascular disease were found for those eating two servings a week of processed meat, unprocessed red meat or poultry — although that last category might be due to frying or the consumption of skin, researchers said.
There was no association for eating fish, the study found.
One serving of processed meat equaled two slices of bacon, two small sausages or one hot dog. One serving of unprocessed red meat was equivalent to 4 ounces of red meat or poultry, or 3 ounces of fish.
The new findings arrive just months after a controversial meta-analysis claiming there’s no need to reduce your red and processed meat intake for good health.
“Everyone interpreted that it was OK to eat red meat, but I don’t think that is what the science supports,” said senior study author Norrina Allen, associate professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a statement.
“It’s a small difference, but it’s worth trying to reduce red meat and processed meat like pepperoni, bologna and deli meats,” Allen said, adding that prior research has also shown an association with other major health risks such as cancer.
Large public health impact
The new analysis, published Monday in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, found a 3% to 7% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death for people who ate two servings of red meat and processed meat each week. That may seem small for an individual, but when extrapolated to a population level, the impact looms large.
“The increase in absolute risk is so small that it is unlikely to be relevant for the individual,” said Gunter Kuhnle, a professor of nutrition and food science at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, in a statement.
“However, on a population level, this is more important,” said Gunter, who was not involved in the study. “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.”
According to Kevin McConway, a retired professor from Open University, a distant learning center in the UK, that new study’s perspective appears to be a key reason that their findings differed so much from last fall’s report saying red meat is fine to eat.
“How can the conclusions from two large-scale studies be so different? Well, it isn’t because the statistical findings were different,” McConway said in a statement. He too, was not involved in the study.
“The researchers on the new study are taking a public health perspective; they note that people can choose to eat less meat, and if they do so and the relationship between meat eating and disease risk is indeed causal,” he said, “then fewer people would have heart attacks and strokes, and on average people would live a bit longer.”
A risk for chicken?
The study also found a 4% higher risk of cardiovascular disease for people who ate two servings per week of poultry. But since the study didn’t ask if the chicken was skinless, fried or breaded, the researchers say the findings are not clear enough for any recommendation about levels of poultry intake.
However, the researchers stressed that fried foods, including chicken and fish, should be avoided because deep fat-frying can contribute trans-fatty acids, and fried fish intake have been positively linked to chronic diseases.
The takeaway from the study? Anyone concerned about their heart health or risk for cancer or other diseases, should limit their intake of red and processed meats, said lead study author Victor Zhong, assistant professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, in a statement.
“Our study shows the link to cardiovascular disease and mortality was robust,” Zhong said. “Modifying intake of these animal protein foods may be an important strategy to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death at a population level.”