The researchers found that greater consumption of red and processed meat is associated with poor heart function and stiff arteries, as well as other markers of cardiovascular disease.
“Previous studies have shown links between greater red meat consumption and increased risk of heart attacks or dying from heart disease,” said study lead author Dr. Zahra Raisi-Estabragh of Queen Mary University of London.
“For the first time, we examined the relationships between meat consumption and imaging measures of heart health. This may help us to understand the mechanisms underlying the previously observed connections with cardiovascular disease.”
The study involved nearly 20,000 participants in the UK Biobank, who reported on their intake of red and processed meat. The researchers analyzed three types of heart measures.
The experts determined that greater intake of red and processed meat was associated with worse heart health across all measures. Individuals who reported eating meat frequently were found to have smaller ventricles, poorer heart function, and stiffer arteries.
By contrast, higher consumption of oily fish was linked to significantly better heart health. As the amount of oily fish intake increased, heart function improved and the arterial stiffness was reversed to some degree.
“The findings support prior observations linking red and processed meat consumption with heart disease and provide unique insights into links with heart and vascular structure and function,” said Dr. Raisi-Estabragh.
According to the researchers, the associations between heart health and meat intake were partially explained by high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and obesity.
“It has been suggested that these factors could be the reason for the observed relationship between meat and heart disease,” said Dr. Raisi-Estabragh.
“For example, it is possible that greater red meat intake leads to raised blood cholesterol and this in turn causes heart disease. Our study suggests that these four factors do play a role in the links between meat intake and heart health, but they are not the full story.”
Dr. Raisi-Estabragh noted that the study did not look into alternative mechanisms. “There is some evidence that red meat alters the gut microbiome, leading to higher levels of certain metabolites in the blood, which have in turn been linked to greater risk of heart disease.”
“This was an observational study and causation cannot be assumed. But in general, it seems sensible to limit intake of red and processed meat for heart health reasons.”
The research was presented at ESC Preventive 2021.