red meat and heart disease

A large European study examined the relationship between red meat consumption, iron levels and the risk of heart disease and stroke.


Iron is an important nutrient involved in many body processes including the transport of oxygen in the blood and the synthesis of DNA. A lack of iron is the most common nutritional deficiency globally and a major cause of anemia. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that high levels of iron stores in the body may increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. Some studies suggest that iron might promote the oxidation of the “bad” cholesterol LDL, or damage the – lining of blood vessels.

There is evidence that red meat consumption is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. It has been suggested that the increased iron load resulting from eating red meat could be the underlying mechanism for this effect, but this has not been clearly established.More research is needed to understand the relationship between -red meat consumption, iron levels and heart disease and stroke. Researchers in Germany analyzed data from a large European study to clarify the relationship.They recently published their findings in the American Journal of Nutrition.

The EPIC Study

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study is an ongoing population study with nearly 520,000 participants in ten European countries. The study is investigating the relationship between diet and cancer and other chronic diseases. The EPIC-Heidelberg Study is part of this study, launched between 1994 and 1998 and including over 25,500 participants. Upon entry into the study, all subjects had a detailed medical interview and assessment including blood samples. The participants also completed comprehensive lifestyle questionnaires including information about their regular diet. After this baseline assessment, the participants were followed on a regular basis, and major medical incidents such as heart attack, stroke, or death were noted and investigated.

A subgroup of the EPIC-Heidelberg Study was analyzed to investigate the relationship between red meat consumption, iron levels, and the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases. The group included 555 cases of myocardial infarction, 513 cases of stroke, 381 cases of cardiovascular death and a random control subgroup of 2,738 subjects. Several statistical analyses of this subgroup looked at the relationships between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease, red meat consumption and iron levels, and iron levels and cardiovascular disease. This data was further analyzed to look at the influence of iron levels on the relationship between red meat consumption and cardiovascular disease.

Iron Levels May Be a Marker Rather of Increased Heart Disease Risk

The analysis of the EPIC Heidelberg subgroup showed that red meat consumption was associated with increased iron levels and increased risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack), but not with risk of stroke or cardiovascular death. After adjusting for other known risk factors for cardiovascular disease, the association between iron levels and cardiovascular disease risk was not significant. Interestingly, iron levels were associated with the most of the well-established risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as age, male sex, alcohol intake, obesity and inflammation. The researchers concluded that increased iron levels may be a marker of increased risk rather than the underlying mechanism linking red meat consumption to cardiovascular disease. They suggest that further research is needed to identify the mediating factors between red meat consumption and heart disease and stroke.

Written by Julie McShane, Medical Writer

Reference: Quintana Pacheco, Sookthai D, Wittenbecher C, et al. Red meat consumption and risk of cardiovascular diseases – is increased iron load a possible link? Am J Clin Nutrition Published online Jan 26 2018. Doi: 10.1093/ajcn/nqx014.

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