Eating processed meat raises heart disease by nearly one-fifth, a new study has found. Conducted by Oxford scientists, the findings come from the biggest review of all large-scale studies to date, involving more than 1.4 million people. It also finds an increased risk linked to red meat intake, adding to the overwhelming bed of evidence highlighting the harmful health impacts of meat consumption.
A new systematic review conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH) have found a strong link between red and processed meat consumption and heart disease. Scientists reviewed 13 large-scale cohort studies involving more than 1.4 million people, with participants tracked up to a 30-year period.
18% higher risk from processed meats
One of the key findings from the analysis was an 18% increase in the risk of heart disease linked to each 50-gram per day higher intake of processed meats. Examples of processed meats include bacon, ham, and sausages.
Our findings suggest an additional role in heart disease.Dr. Keren Papier, Nutritional Epidemiologist, NDPH
Oxford scientists say that up until now, there hasn’t yet been a clear database of evidence linking processed meat to heart disease, though the World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen.
“Red and processed meat have been consistently linked with bowel cancer and our findings suggest an additional role in heart disease,” commented co-lead author of the study, Dr. Keren Papier.
Even unprocessed red meat leads to a higher risk of heart disease. According to the findings, each 50-gram per day intake of red meat such as beef, lamb, and pork increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 9%. No link was found between poultry meats such as chicken and turkey and increased risk of heart disease.
Saturated fat content to blame
Oxford researchers say that one explanation is the high content of saturated fat found within red meat, and the sodium levels in processed meats. While saturated fat increases the amount of harmful LDL cholesterol, high salt intake can raise blood pressure—both known risk factors for heart disease.
Based on their findings, the team is advising the public to slash their red and processed meat intake.
“Current recommendations to limit red and processed meat consumption may also assist with the prevention of coronary heart disease,” said Dr. Papier. If people reduced their unprocessed meat intake by 75% and eliminated processed meat from their diet, an extra 1 death from every 100 deaths from coronary heart disease could be prevented.
Co-lead author of the study Dr. Anika Knüppel also pointed to the environmental benefits that would stem from reduced meat consumption. “We know that meat production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and we need to reduce meat production and thereby consumption to benefit the environment.”
We need to reduce meat production and thereby consumption to benefit the environment.Dr. Anika Knüppel, Nutritional Epidemiologist, NDPH
Meat and health impacts
Previously, NDPH researchers at Oxford have found a link between meat-eating and a wide range of diseases, including pneumonia and diabetes. Published in March, the study also concluded a correlation between red and processed meat consumption and diverticular disease and colon polyps.
It marked one of the first studies to assess the impact of meat consumption and non-cancerous illnesses.
Over in the U.S., researchers at the National Cancer Institute published a study concluding an “inverse association” between higher consumption of plant-based foods and heart disease mortality rates. The most significant inverse associations were found when participants replaced red meat and eggs with plant-based protein sources.
Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.