Written by: Hiyaguha Cohen
February 27, 2021
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine links two servings of red meat or poultry per week to a higher rate of heart disease and premature death. The only meat that didn’t pose any risk was fish. Previous research found that people who eat processed meat were 42% more likely to develop heart disease and 19% more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Processed meat has the highest risk due to higher sodium nitrate preservatives.
Study says red meat is not healthy
A Northwestern University study linked a 3% higher risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death to just two servings of red meat, processed meat, or poultry – but not fish – per week. The large study included 29,682 participants and again highlighted the dangers of eating meat. With processed meat (such as delicatessen, hot dogs, sausage and bacon) the risk rose to 7%. However, these results shouldn’t be shocking. We have spoken repeatedly of the dangers of a high-meat diet and covered many studies, such as that from the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in Boston, which found that people who eat processed meats like bacon, sausage, and deli a 42 percent higher risk of developing heart disease and 19 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes for every 50 grams daily serving. In other words, 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and that increased diabetes risk results from eating just 1.8 ounces of processed meat.
In this study, the researchers systematically won 1,600 studies from around the world up to the 20 most relevant. (This is called a “meta-analysis” because it is an analysis of other studies.) These 20 studies involved 1,218,310 people from 10 countries in North America, Australia, Europe and Asia. The researchers defined any meat prepared by hardening, salting, smoking, or adding chemical preservatives. Unprocessed meat was defined as meat that was served as it was taken from a pig, cattle or sheep (but cooked). Poultry and vegetable protein sources were excluded from the study.
Are all types of red meat harmful to health?
Interestingly, in the Harvard study, consuming unprocessed red meat – beef, pork, and lamb – did not correspond to a higher risk of either disease. However, the most recent study from the Northwest showed that eating just two servings of red meat per week was linked to a 3% higher risk of premature death from any cause. And again, if you eat processed meat, the risk goes up to 7%. In fact, a 2015 World Health Organization review of the evidence concluded that processed meat is a proven carcinogen. Processed or not, they conclude that there is no truly risk-free way to eat red meat.
I’ve reported similar results from previous studies. In fact, I wrote a health blog about a study conducted by the National Institutes for Health and the AARP that has followed more than half a million people, ages 50 to 71, for more than a decade. This study found that Those subjects who ate the equivalent of a small hamburger daily had a 30 percent increased risk of death for all reasonsbut especially cancer and heart problems. The increased risk for women was especially startling: those who ate the most red meat increased their risk of death by 36% and their risk of dying from heart failure by 50%. (Note: we’re not talking about grass-fed or organic beef, which could change the equation significantly.)
Why processed meat is deadlier
In any case, it makes sense that processed meat is more deadly than the unprocessed variety, but not because of the amount of saturated fat and cholesterol. These were similar for the processed and unprocessed meat. This also applied to the “lifestyle factors” of those who eat processed and unprocessed meat. Apparently the real difference was the much higher levels of sodium nitrate preservatives in processed meat. According to study leader Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor at the HSPH Department of Epidemiology, “… processed meat contained an average of four times more sodium and 50% more nitrate preservatives. This suggests that differences in salt and preservatives rather than fats could explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes that occurs with processed meat but not with unprocessed red meat. “
While this is not new news, it is the first global study to suggest the potential negative effects of salt and nitrate preservatives on the body. I’ve mentioned in many places that refined commercial iodized table salt contributes to high blood pressure, a cause of heart disease. (Note: not all salts are created equal.) Nitrates are a different story. Naturally found in vegetables and fruits, nitrates are added to meat and other foods to maintain color and act as preservatives. The body converts nitrates to nitrites, and nitrites have a controversial relationship with cancer, with some studies showing a high correlation with cancer and others not. For one, the National Academy of Science claims that nitrites are unlikely to cause any type of cancer, but the Harvard study cited above shows a clear correlation between intake of sodium and nitrates in processed meat and an increased risk of heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, this indicates that despite the controversy in research, there may be a greater association between nitrate intake and colon cancer and other cancers than recognized by the medical institution.
Interestingly, doctors use nitrates to intervene in heart attacks and angina because it dilates the arteries of the heart and increases blood flow. There are three main forms – nitroglycerin, isosorbide dinitrate, and isosorbide mononitrate. When used in these forms, it can be injected into the bloodstream (in an emergency with a heart attack) and taken as a spray, pill, paste, or patch. However, the nitrate hot dog variety serves no purpose other than sensory pleasure for those who are prone to it. I don’t know of any doctor who recommends eating a hot dog if you have a heart attack or angina.
Again, there is plenty of evidence that processed meat is deadly. The HSPH study showed that a mere serving per day is enough to have dire effects. The result is that eating the cow in a cow-like state is likely a little better if you are going to eat it. On the flip side, if you want to live longer and stay healthier, it’s probably better not to eat the cow at all … or at least limit your food to organic, grass-fed cows.