Regularly eating meat has been linked to a wide range of diseases including pneumonia, diabetes and heart disease, finds a new large-scale study conducted by British researchers. Notably, the study found an association between meat consumption and nine non-cancerous illnesses, many of them not considered in previous research. The latest findings add to the plethora of data linking high meat consumption with negative health outcomes.
According to a large-scale, population-level study conducted by Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH) researchers, regular meat consumption is linked to a higher risk of a number of illnesses. The study was published on Tuesday (March 2) in the peer-reviewed journal BMC Medicine.
The research, which monitored 25 major causes of non-cancerous hospital admissions among 475,000 adults in the U.K. recruited into the nationwide Biobank study, found higher consumption of both unprocessed red meat and processed meat combined was associated with higher risks of ischaemic heart disease, pneumonia, diverticular disease, colon polyps, and diabetes.
While participants who tended to consume meat regularly were more likely than low meat-eaters to smoke, drink alcohol and considered overweight or obese, these factors were taken into account by the researchers. Those involved in the study were assessed with an initial questionnaire about their dietary habits, then followed-up for an average of 8 years.
This research is the first to assess the risk of 25 non-cancerous health conditions in relation to meat intake in one study.Dr. Keren Papier, Lead Author & Nutritional Epidemiologist, NDPH
It marks the first time that researchers have established a relationship between high meat consumption and the risk of developing risk of non-cancerous diseases that weren’t previously considered, as existing evidence has already consistently shown excess meat consumption increases the likelihood of cancerous diseases as well as heart disease.
“We have long known that unprocessed red and processed meat consumption is likely to be carcinogenic and this research is the first to assess the risk of 25 non-cancerous health conditions in relation to meat intake in one study,” explained nutritional epidemiologist and lead author Dr. Keren Papier.
More specific results from the study indicate a significant correlation between different types of meat intake and negative health outcomes, but all types of processed and unprocessed meat raised the risk of a number of diseases to varying degrees.
For example, every 70-grams of red and processed meat intake per day was linked to a 15% higher risk of ischaemic heart disease and a 30% higher risk of diabetes, while every 30 grams of poultry consumption per day was associated with 17% higher risk of gastro-oesophageal reflux disease and a 14% greater risk of diabetes.
The researchers said that these results stem from the high levels of saturated fatty acids in meat, which can increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, an established risk factor for ischaemic heart disease.
Most of the positive associations between higher risk of illnesses and high meat consumption were reduced, however, if participants’ BMI were taken into account, suggesting that regular meat eaters having a higher average body weight could be partly causing these associations.
The study also noted that one outcome of regular meat consumption was a lower risk of iron deficiency anaemia, a finding that Dr. Papier indicates that those who practice meat-free diets “need to be careful that they obtain enough iron, through dietary sources or supplements”.
This latest research adds to the growing bed of scientific data showcasing the detrimental health impacts of meat consumption, and the benefits of increasing plant-based foods in our diets, with one recent large-scale study concluding a correlation between plant-based diets and gut microbes that help lower risks for heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Another study, led by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., found an “inverse association” between higher consumption of plant-based foods and heart disease mortality rates. The most prominent inverse associations were recorded in the replacement of eggs and red meat with plant proteins.
Most recently, a study comparing vegan diets and the popular Mediterranean diet in a randomised crossover trial, the researchers also found that low-fat plant-based diets resulted in more positive outcomes in terms of insulin sensitivity and body composition.
In addition to supporting human health, plant-based proteins are also more environmentally-friendly. An Oxford University 2019 study found that healthy plant-based foods are almost always associated with a smaller carbon footprint. Experts have also warned that without a drastic reduction in global meat and dairy consumption, emissions from our food system will put the Paris agreement goals far out of reach.
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