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Red meat: Avoid the processed stuff

Many people who try to follow a healthful diet eat red meat with a side order of guilt. A recent study suggests that eating beef, lamb, pork, and other red meat is okay for your heart and arteries as long as it hasn’t been smoked, cured, salted, or otherwise preserved. But go easy on processed meats like bacon, cold cuts, and hot dogs.

Researchers at Harvard School of Public Health gathered information from 20 studies of diet and health. It gave them detailed data on diet, including meat consumption, from 1.2 million initially healthy participants, 27,000 of whom went on to develop heart disease, diabetes, or stroke.

Rates of these three diseases were no higher in the group of participants who ate red meat eight times a week than they were among those eating red meat once a week or less. The story for processed meat was completely different: every serving per day of processed meat increased the risk of developing heart disease by 42% and the risk of diabetes by 19%.

Nutrient-wise, unprocessed and processed red meat are fairly similar. Processed meat has slightly more fat and calories and less protein and cholesterol per serving than unprocessed meat. The biggest nutritional differences between unprocessed and processed red meat are salt (four times more salt in processed meat) and nonsalt preservatives (higher in processed meat). The researchers suggest that excess salt and preservatives may partly explain the difference in cardiovascular effects.

Evolution of science

Pundits, comics, and nutrition-research skeptics pounced on the conclusion that red meat may be okay for the heart, calling it a flip-flop or worse. But this view overlooks the evolutionary nature of scientific and medical research, as well as researchers growing ability to tease apart elements of the diet that were once lumped together.

Instead of viewing the new findings as a flip-flop, take them as good news for carnivores. Meat will be in our diet for a long time. It’s important to start taking a look at which meats are the healthiest, and which you should avoid.

Take-home lessons

The researchers didn’t find that eating red meat is good for you, just that consuming it doesn’t seem to affect the risk of developing heart disease or diabetes.

Keep in mind that this analysis won’t be the last word on the subject. It is limited by the quality of the data in the 20 original studies, and will almost certainly spur other researchers to examine the effect of meat consumption on cardiovascular disease.

This work doesn’t mean you should indulge your carnivorous appetite. The best sources of protein are still fish, beans, nuts, and poultry. But the findings do suggest that eating red meat once or twice a week may not be harmful.

On the other hand, the study points out the perils of routinely eating processed meat.  Like many other studies before it, this study finds that regular consumption of processed meat boosts the chances of developing heart disease and diabetes. One serving of processed meat a week falls in the “in moderation” category. More than that and you could be doing your heart a disservice.

September 2010 update

Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart

What you eat makes all the difference when it comes to keeping your heart pumping and your arteries running clear. Healthy Eating for a Healthy Heart explains the latest news in cardiovascular health in easy-to-understand language and offers recipes and eating plans to guide your daily diet. This report helps sort through the hype about weight loss and makes eating a heart-healthy diet a pleasure. Learn more »