Fortunately some researchers started to wonder what it was about red meat that was causing the increased risk of CVD in those who ate it. Was it purely the saturated fat and cholesterol content of red meat that increased risk? They hypothesised that perhaps it was the sodium level in processed meat that increased blood pressure that could explain the association with CVD. If this was the case, they wondered, are unprocessed meats OK to eat? Or do are they still associated with CVD?
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers looked at processed (defined as sausage, salami, bacon and ham) and unprocessed red meat consumption (defined as beef, pork, veal, horse - yep sorry but not uncommon in France - and sheep) and the incidence of hypertension in 444,616 French women.
The results showed that women who consumed five or more servings of processed meat each week (with 1 serving = 50 grams), had a 17% higher rate of hypertension than women who consumed less than one serving each week. No association was found between eating unprocessed red meat and hypertension.
This is good news for steak lovers. However, it doesn’t give unprocessed meat the all clear just yet! As this study looked specifically at the relationship between red meat and hypertension, it didn’t measure actual CVD risk. Hypertension is only risk factor and so it's possible that red meat has other impacts on our heart health.
Eating a lot of red meat has been associated with not only an increase in risk of CVD, certain cancers and diabetes, but also with an overall shorter mortality. So in another study, also published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers analysed the difference in survival associated with processed and non-processed red meat consumption.
Using a self-administered questionnaire, researchers analysed the diet of 74,645 Swedish men and women. Interestingly, even though a high total red meat consumption was associated with progressively shorter survival (meaning the more meat they ate, the less time they survived), the relationship was largely due to the consumption of processed meats. Eating non-processed red meat was not associated with shorter survival.
The analysis also showed that compared with participants who never ate red meat, moderate consumption (up to 100g/d) was not associated with shorter or longer survival, so passing on red meat altogether didn't necessarily improve your health.
What does this all mean? It’s good news for those who like to throw a steak on the BBQ. Lean cuts of unprocessed meat (such as a delicious eye fillet), is likely not to be detrimental to your health, nor shorten your life! However evidence is pretty strong that processed meats such as ham, bacon and salami are indeed detrimental if consumed too often. They increase your risk of hypertension, CVD, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, particularly colon cancer.
If you really love bacon or are partial to chorizo with your scrambled eggs on the weekend, then of course you can still enjoy these foods. Just take care to limit them to no more than once or twice a week. The rest of the time choose fresh meat instead. Poach some chicken to use for mid-week sandwiches instead of ham. Throw a steak on the BBQ rather than sausages. Or use just a little bacon or proscuitto to flavour a dish, rather than making them the hero on the plate.
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