Meat: Should We Love It, or Leave It?
Recent research contradicts standard advice that eating meat contributes to heart disease. Esteemed cardiologists would like to set the record straight.
In October 2019, the medical world was shocked by five articles in the Annals of Internal Medicine that contradicted advice physicians have been giving for years: Cut back on eating meat, because it’s bad for your health.
After reviewing nutrition studies, the authors determined the evidence linking red meat and processed meat to heart disease and cancer was too weak to recommend anyone change their current levels of meat consumption.
But Cleveland Clinic cardiologists strongly disagree.
“Research consistently shows that the more red meat you eat, the higher your long-term risk of getting and dying from cardiovascular disease,” says Stanley Hazen, MD, PhD, Co-Section Head of Preventive Cardiology. “There is a clear association. And it’s been seen over and over in both men and women in various populations in various countries.”
Where Researchers Went Wrong
The Annals authors conducted their investigation primarily by reviewing three meta-analyses of more than 100 studies, although the studies are too detailed to include here. (You can read them yourself on www.annals.org). It’s how they were interpreted that is so controversial.
“The researchers found low- to very-low certainty of benefit in cutting down on red meat. Yet all three meta-analyses showed some reduction in mortality risk with lower red meat consumption,” says Dennis Bruemmer, MD, PhD, a colleague of Dr. Hazen’s in Preventive Cardiology.
Today, 55% of U.S. adults eat 3.5 or more servings of meat a week. When researchers at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health crunched the numbers using the same technique as the Annals authors, they concluded that a moderate reduction in red meat consumption in this country might prevent 200,000 deaths per year.
“To say the benefit is too small to guide dietary recommendations, and it’s okay to eat as much meat as you want, sends the wrong message,” says Dr. Bruemmer.
What’s Wrong With Meat?
While no one knows exactly what makes meat harmful, high levels of saturated fat and cholesterol are likely involved.
Additionally, Dr. Hazen’s laboratory discovered two nutrients present in meat - choline and L-carnitine - are broken down in the digestive process to trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO). High levels of TMAO are linked to heart attack and stroke.
And, frankly, it’s been known for years that processed and cured meats are unhealthy for the heart, due to the large amounts of sodium and saturated fat they contain.
Don’t forget that what you serve with meat - too often French fries or a loaded potato - may contribute to the overall negative impact of meat on the heart, as well.
And how much meat you eat is certainly a factor. In the U.S., gigantic portions of beef-top steakhouses serve 22-ounce ribeyes-dwarf the 3-ounce portion of meat recommended by American Heart Association dietary guidelines.
Is Meat Off the Table?
Giving up meat may be ideal for our heart health, but Dr. Bruemmer feels it is unrealistic to ask people who love meat to eliminate it from their diet. Instead, he advocates making smarter choices.
“Cut way back on how often you eat meat, and limit the portion size,” he suggests. “A small piece of lean meat once a week might be okay, if you don’t cook it in butter and salt. Skip the basket of fries and enjoy it with vegetables and a green salad.”