Red meat and cardiovascular disease

Last updated: October 2015

Red meat and cardiovascular diseaseCardiovascular disease (CVD) is the term used to describe diseases that affect the heart and circulation such as coronary heart disease (CHD), stroke and heart attack. CVD is the main cause of death worldwideRates of heart disease have been steadily decreasing since the 1980s. However, in the United Kingdom the rates remain amongst the highest in Europe and in 2007 it was estimated that CHD was responsible for almost a third of all deaths in the UK (British Heart Foundation 2010).
Causes of CVD 
The causes of CVD are complex but diet and lifestyle (e.g. physical activity and stopping smoking) play a key role in influencing risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes and high blood cholesterol (Stanner, S 2005).  Dietary fats and saturated fat in particular, are regarded as  having an important influence on CVD because of their effects on blood cholesterol levels

Red meat is often viewed as being harmful for heart health on the grounds of its fat and saturated fat content. However, the fat content of red meat has decreased considerably during recent years owing to changes in animal breeding and feeding and modern butchery techniques which produce leaner cuts of meat. Nowadays, fully trimmed lean raw beef typically contains only 5 per cent fat, fully trimmed lean raw pork only 4 per cent fat and fully trimmed lean raw lamb only 8 per cent fat (1).    

Overall, red meat contains similar proportions of monounsaturated fats and saturated fats  
Monounsaturated fats are the type of fat associated with a healthy Mediterranean-style diet and thought to protect against CVD.   Red meat also contains a number of other nutrients such as, selenium, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids which are similarly thought to be cardio-protective (Wyness et al 2011). 

What do we know ?
Some studies have linked high meat intakes with increased risk of CVD, but they have their limitations making it difficult to establish cause and effect.  They tend to be quite old and do not take into account the recent changes in the fat and saturated fat content of red meat.  

Different definitions for red and processed meat have been used by researchers making any comparison between studies meaningless.  In some, the types and amounts of meat consumed are not defined.  In others, lean red meat is combined with processed meats, or even fried foods, pies and other processed foods.  This obscures the true relationship between red meat and heart health.

Studies comparing vegetarians and meat eaters have highlighted lower rates of heart disease among the vegetarians.   However, it is important to consider that these groups are also less likely to smoke or to be overweight, and tend to be more physically active than the general population, all of which reduce CVD risk.

Much of the evidence gathered over the years has looked at many different dietary and lifestyle variables.  This makes it impossible to single out one food group, such as meat as a cause of CVD.   It is the overall dietary pattern, lifestyle habits and family history that determines an individual’s risk of CVD. 

In Conclusion
The evidence linking red meat and CVD is inconsistent and far from clear cut, and there is no scientific justification for excluding meat from our diets.   Meat and meat products make a significant contribution to nutrient intake for most of us and, consumed in moderation, can be part of a healthy balanced diet.

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