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February 24, 2020

The Pepperoni Papers

Conflicting recommendations about eating meat have generated confusion and controversy. A massive new study makes things clearer.

Meat lovers rejoiced last fall when a study found that decreasing the amount of meat people eat didn't seem to lead to any particular health benefits. Now, there's another chapter in the controversy surrounding meat: a new study finds red and processed meats raise the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The new study, conducted by researchers at Cornell University and the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, looked at a data collected from nearly 30,000 people, most of whom were in their mid 50s and followed for up to 30 years. Dietary information was self-reported by the people in the study.

The idea was to examine the relationship between fatal cardiovascular events from coronary heart disease, heart failure and stroke and how often people ate different types of meat.

Fish, seafood and plant-based proteins like beans, peas and nuts are excellent meat alternatives and good sources of protein.

People who said they ate two servings a week of red or processed meat had a three to seven percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death. Eating two servings a week of poultry led to a four percent higher risk of cardiovascular disease, but there wasn’t enough evidence to make a recommendation about eating poultry because factors like how the poultry was cooked and whether or not the skin was eaten weren’t considered.

No association was found between eating fish and developing cardiovascular disease or dying prematurely.

“It's a small difference, but it's worth trying to reduce red meat and processed meat like pepperoni, bologna and deli meats,” said Norrina Allen, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in a statement. “Red meat consumption also is consistently linked to other health problems like cancer.”

Such controversy and conflicting information are clearly confusing to consumers, so what kind of protein is best for a person to eat? Study author Linda Van Horn, who is also a member of the 2020 U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, said that fish, seafood and plant-based proteins like beans, peas and nuts are excellent meat alternatives. These foods are good sources of protein, and Americans don’t eat enough of them.

Until the controversy is settled, it’s probably a good idea to aim for more meatless meals, eat more seafood and fish and increase the beans, peas, seeds and nuts in your diet. Eggs and low-fat dairy foods are also good sources of protein, with lesser amounts found in whole grains and vegetables.

The study is published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
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