Study Suggests Red and Processed Meat Be Limited in a Heart-Healthy Diet

Key Takeaways

  • A recent meta-analysis found that eating red and processed meat can increase ischemic heart disease risk.
  • In the same study, eating poultry didn’t appear to play a significant role on heart health.
  • Experts say people should focus on dietary patterns and overall lifestyle choices when supporting heart health instead of completely eliminating one food from their diet.

It’s been long since debated whether red and processed meat can be part of a heart-healthy diet. But new research suggests that it should be limited to keep heart disease at bay.

Results from a new study suggest that eating more red and processed meat increases one’s risk of developing ischemic heart disease (IHD), also referred to as coronary heart disease.

This study is not the first to investigate the relationship between diet and IHD. As the authors indicate, data has been mixed in the past regarding this relationship. These results were in July in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition.

What Is Ischemic Heart Disease (IHD)?

This type of heart disease is caused by inadequate blood flow to the heart due to the narrowing of the coronary arteries. When arteries narrow, less blood and oxygen can reach the heart muscle—which may ultimately result in a heart attack. Frequently, IHD is due to is atherosclerosis, a condition in which fats, cholesterol, and calcium build up in the artery walls.

Does Eating Meat Increase the Risk of IHD?

While certain risk factors that can increase one’s risk can’t be modified—think genetics, and age—other factors, like certain lifestyle choices, are completely under a person’s control. 

Results from past analyses of available data have been mixed when it comes to answering the question of whether meat intake increases IHD risk. Since newer data has become available in recent years, researchers conducted a meta-analysis of 13 existing studies.

Researchers found that the risk of developing IHD increases 9% with every additional 50 grams (1.8 ounces) of red meat eaten, and the risk increases 18% with each extra 50 g of processed meat.

There wasn’t a significant difference in the risk of ischemic heart disease based on how much poultry people ate each day.

Of the studies used in this analysis, all but one study used food frequency questionnaires (FFQs) to assess meat intake, a method that relies on the participant’s memory and therefore can potentially be unreliable. Plus, the researchers did not distinguish whether the participants consumed lean cuts of meat versus those that are higher in saturated fat—a nutrient that may be linked to increased risk of IHD.

What This Means For You

To support your heart health, it’s likely a good idea to limit the amount of red and processed meats you include in your diet. But it’s important to remember that most things can be enjoyed in moderation.

Should Red Meat Be Avoided When Supporting Heart Health?

“Everything in moderation can fit in a balanced and healthy diet, including red meat,” Liz Shaw MS RDN CPT, registered dietician and author, tells Verywell. 

To reduce heart disease risk, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your intake of saturated fats to no more than 5-6% of total calories if blood cholesterol levels are a concern. That means for a person who is following a 2,000 calorie diet, the maximum amount of saturated fat consumed should be between 11 and 13 grams per day.

Many foods naturally contain saturated fat, including certain, but not all, cuts of red meats. But there are cuts of red meat that are leaner and can be a part of a heart-healthy diet.

For example, options like flank steak and top sirloin steak do not contain as much saturated fat as choices like short ribs and can be a source of important nutrients. 

“Beef is a nutrient-rich, high-quality protein that supports heart-healthy diets and lifestyles,” Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD, executive director of nutrition science, health, and wellness at National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, tells Verywell. “What’s missing from studies like this is the ability to evaluate healthy diets with red meats in amounts typically consumed in the U.S.” 

She shares that results from many studies show that “enjoying beef in healthy diets paired with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dairy can support healthy cholesterol and blood pressure levels. Beef’s nutrients like B-vitamins, zinc, and selenium are not only important or heart health, but support health and wellbeing across the lifespan.”

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition highlights this effect. In this study, researchers found that following a Mediterranean-style dietary pattern that includes fresh lean beef reduced heart disease risk factors.

“The overall dietary pattern and lifestyle of the individual are more important than any specific foods when it comes to the risk for chronic diseases like heart disease,” Tamar Samuels, MS, RD, cofounder of Culina Health, tells Verywell.

“Eating more red meat and processed red meat may increase some people’s risk of heart disease, but this depends on a number of factors including, genetics, weight, stress, fiber intake, phytonutrient, and vitamin and mineral intake,” she adds. “While we can’t control genetics, we can control these other factors.”

If you’d like to enjoy red or processed meat, you can try watching your portions instead of eliminating these food choices altogether.

And the AHA recommends certain dietary interventions, including:

  • Eating fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes
  • Choosing whole grains instead of refined grains
  • Eating poultry and fish without skin
  • Choosing low-fat dairy products
  • Using nontropical vegetable oils, like olive oil, as a fat source
  • Limiting sodium intake