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Processed Red Meat and Chronic Disease: Should We Worry?

A recent study explored whether an increased consumption of processed red meat in different dietary patterns was related to elevated levels of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes markers.

An abundance of research has successfully demonstrated a connection between eating red meat and developing various chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes (T2D), cardiovascular diseases (CVD), and metabolic syndrome among many. Similarly, research on this topic has indicated that the prevalence of the previously mentioned chronic diseases is on the rise, therefore it is critical that innovative and effective public health strategies are implemented to lower people’s chronic disease risk and enhance the quality of their overall diets. But should the focus shift to processed red meat?

Public health recommendations for controlling red meat consumption suggested that individuals should eat less than 500g of red meat per week. It is worth considering, however, that multiple scientific reviews have urged others to distinguish between unprocessed and processed red meat when studying health outcomes. One meta-analysis (a study of multiple studies) found an impressive association between eating red meat and developing T2D. Due to the observational nature of most of these studies, it is challenging (if not impossible) to determine a causal relationship between eating red meat and future chronic disease risk.

To build on this body of evidence, this study, published in the British Journal of Nutrition, set out to assess dietary patterns, to document the contribution of eating red meat to diet quality and lastly, to explore the potential relationship between particular dietary patterns and biomarkers (such as blood sugar and cholesterol levels) of T2D and CVD. Data were obtained from the National Adult Nutrition Survey (NANS) conducted in 2011, the 785 adult participants were part of a nationally representative Irish sample of individuals.

After performing statistical analyses, the researchers noticed that four main dietary patterns existed among participants. Overall, processed red meat consumption was recorded to be 52 grams per day in males and 29 grams per day among females; similarly, total red meat consumption was documented at 134 g per day for males and 89 grams per day for females. Interestingly enough, when the four dietary patterns were compared, no significant differences between T2D and CVD factors were recorded. Overall these researchers could confidently conclude that no association between increased processed red meat consumption and T2D or CVD markers existed in this Irish group of participants.

Researchers acknowledge that the lack of a universal definition for processed meat makes interpreting studies involving disease risk difficult, thus they assert that additional research is warranted in this field to gain a better understanding of whether a higher risk of disease is related to the total consumption of processed red meat or specific products. In order to address this emerging global health concern, the authors recommend that public health authorities develop a universal definition for processed red meat; moreover, they suggest that modifying the ingredients in red meat (as was one worldwide for salt intake) could be an effective public health strategy aimed at increasing the nutritional quality of processed red meat.

Written by Melissa Booker


Lenighan YM, Nugent AP, Li KF, Brennan L, Walton J, Flynn A, Roche HM, McNulty BA. Processed red meat contribution to dietary patterns and the associated cardio-metabolic outcomes. British Journal of Nutrition. 2017 Aug;118(3):222-8 doi:10.1017/S0007114517002008



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