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health as it happens

Eating processed meat raises risk of heart disease by a fifth

Bacon, ham and sausages increased the heart disease risk but chicken and turkey did not. Show caption Bacon, ham and sausages increased the heart disease risk but chicken and turkey did not. Photograph: Rick Wilking/Reuters
Meat

Oxford University researchers urge people to reduce consumption by three-quarters or give it up

Eating processed meat raises the risk of heart disease by a fifth, according to the largest ever analysis of research into the impact of meat consumption on cardiac health.

Researchers at the University of Oxford are urging the public to cut their red and processed meat consumption by three-quarters, or to give it up entirely, to lower their risk of dying from coronary heart disease.

The team found that eating 50g per day of processed meat, including bacon, ham and sausages, increased the risk of heart disease by 18% owing to its high salt and saturated fat content.

This fell to 9% for unprocessed red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork, but there was no link found between heart disease and eating poultry, such as chicken and turkey, which are lower in saturated fat.

Anika Knüppel, a co-lead author of the study, said: “We know that meat production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and we need to reduce meat production and consumption to benefit the environment. Our study shows that a reduction in red and processed meat intake would bring personal health benefits too.”

She added that there was no agreement on what constituted a safe level, and instead recommended consuming as little as possible, with once a week a possible maximum. She urged policymakers to strengthen public health guidelines to encourage more people to limit their processed red meat intake.

While the research did not establish the reasons for the link, it is thought that high intakes of saturated fat increase levels of harmful low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, while excess salt consumption raises blood pressure, both of which are present in high quantities in processed meat and are well-established risk factors for coronary heart disease.

Nearly 9 million people die every year globally of coronary heart disease, which is caused by narrowed arteries that supply the heart with blood. In the UK, 10% of people are expected to die from coronary heart disease eventually, a figure the researchers estimate could be reduced to 9% if people cut their red meat intake by three-quarters or stopped consuming it.

Previous work from the same research team has indicated that even moderate intakes of red and processed meat are associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer.

Researchers at Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health analysed all the available evidence, including 13 cohort studies tracking the health of more than 1.4 million people for up to 30 years, to establish definitively the link between coronary heart disease and red meat consumption. Most studies were based on white adults living in Europe or the US, with more data required on other populations.

• This article was amended on 21 July 2021 to clarify the reference to 50g of meat as being “per day”.

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