Is Red Meat Consumption a Significant Risk Factor For Cardiovascular Disease?

Progressive nutritional scientists recognize that total dietary saturated fat intake has little health effect or relevance as a target. Does that make red meat OK?

In 2015 the skeptical cardiologist described the conflict occurring in the nutritional scientific community between the old guard traditionalists and more scientifically open-minded progressives.

I updated that post today and sent out a Substack newsletter with that update and these comments.

Although seven years have passed since that post there has been only slight incremental improvement in messaging and the traditionalists are still in control of the American Heart Association and many other nutrition websites. I just checked what the AHA has to say about meat and dairy and it is still promulgating the outdated, traditional concepts:

The American Heart Association recommends choosing healthy sources of proteins, mostly from plant sources; regularly eating fish and seafood; substituting nonfat and low-fat dairy products in place of full-fat versions; and for people who eat meat or poultry, choosing those that are lean and unprocessed.

In general, red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) have more saturated fat than skinless chicken, fish and plant proteins. Saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease. If you eat poultry, pork, beef or other meats, choose lean meat, skinless poultry, and unprocessed forms.

However, (as I mention in my lecture on the optimal diet to prevent atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease), Up-to-Date, the major online reference for physicians has this more progressive recommendation:

And, a “State of the Art Review” (Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-based Recommendations: JACC State-of -the-Art Reviewwas published in 2020 in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology by a group of prominent nutritionists and provides substantial backing for the progressive SFA paradigm.

I encourage a full reading of the article but here is the abstract:

across the board recommendation to limit dietary saturated fatty acid (SFA) intake has persisted despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Most recent meta-analyses of randomized trials and observational studies found no beneficial effects of reducing SFA intake on cardiovascular disease (CVD) and total mortality, and instead found protective effects against stroke. Although SFAs increase low-density lipoprotein (LDL)-cholesterol, in most individuals, this is not due to increasing levels of small, dense LDL particles, but rather larger LDL which are much less strotrongly related to CVD risk. It is also apparent that the health effects of foods cannot be predicted by their content in any nutrient group, without considering the overall macronutrient distribution. Whole-fat dairy, unprocessed meat, eggs and dark chocolate are SFA-rich foods with a complex matrix that are not associated with increased risk of CVD. The totality of available evidence does not support further limiting the intake of such foods.“

PolyUnSaturatingly Yours,

-ACP

N.B. In the last 3 years multiple studies/organizations have concluded that the association between unprocessed red meat consumption and colorectal cancer, breast cancer, type 2 diabetes and ischemic heart disease is very weak. If we stop making dietary decisions based on macronutrient content (e.g. lower SFA content) are there other reasons to eliminate or reduce meat consumption?

A decision to eliminate or minimize meat consumption for many individuals is driven by environmental and ethical concerns.

I’ll examine this issue in a subsequent post.

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25 thoughts on “Is Red Meat Consumption a Significant Risk Factor For Cardiovascular Disease?”

  1. At the end of his discussion Dr. Pearson wrote, “If we stop making dietary decisions based on macronutrient content (e.g. lower SFA content) are there other reasons to eliminate or reduce meat consumption?”

    There are no reasons to eliminate meat consumption but there is a reason to reduce it. Google ‘reduced arachidonic acid intake’ and Michael Greger arachidonic acid. Grain-fed livestock are contain an excess of linoleic acid and arachidonic acid in both lean and adipose tissue. Google ‘DDGS belly flap omega-6 swine’ to learn more about the matter.

    Reply
  2. While I’d like to agree with you on this, I’ve seen reports showing many of our ancestors eating plenty of red meat — BUT not at all the kind we buy in the supermarket. The research I’ve seen shows that organ meat is the overwhelming preference. And, there’s a big difference in the fat comp, the gut bacteria, and many other things. I’ve seen the reports on jaw function too though and it’s really hard to imagine that we were designed for the super high meat consumption (rightly mentioned above by E. Lincoln) that seems to be the standard these days in the US.

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  3. Retired enlightened farmer says: sit down with a family of traditional eaters and see very wide differences in between dietary consumption. I normally get served by weight 90% Animal products. Of course it tastes good but when I go home it’s a three ounce of meat serving and sprinkle of cheese or bacon for flavor enhancer. I Rarely see any vegetable or fruit consumption outside of my home. I think this difference is hard to fathom.

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    • Steven,
      That is from Alan Flanagan, an Irish PhD.who can be heard on Danny Lemon’s Sigma nutrition podcasts. The idea that the authors of the JACC paper were following a “formula” implies that they weren’t looking at the question from a neutral standpoint, merely trotting out old disproven data to support their predetermined viewpoint. I don’t think this is the case. As I point out in my original post these authors aren’t in any particular camp and they are just following where the science is leading now.
      If there is a “formula” it is one that incorporates the newest data and modifies the old theory based on the new data.
      Dr. P

      Reply
  4. I did not realize that the link between red meat and CRC had decreasing support. In any case, compensating for confounders in those studies has to be awfully hard. I don’t eat red meat often, but…sometimes ya just wanna steak.

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  5. Good to see your article: ask the wrong question, get the wrong answer. While the human body will tolerate an occasional cigar, or 4 alcohol drinks a week, the same goes for red meat: not ideal for the human body that has a biology similar to our closest genetic cousins: 90+% vegan chimpanzees and gorillas (like it or not). Our jaw does not come down in a scissors action, our teeth are not sharp all the way to the back, we cannot safely digest rotten carrion the way all carnivores can. We have flat grinding teeth and the name of our canines is misleading. We have an enzyme for digesting plant food where food first comes in to the body. You get the picture. Think (unprocessed) grains, vegetables, beans, fruit, nuts, and seeds at the 90+% level with anything once in a while such as red meat. HRS, MD, FACC

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  6. Increasingly, it seems like all the dietary things we used to think greatly increased one’s risk of coronary artery disease don’t have that much impact. I’m curious as to whether the scientific opinion may be heading towards a conclusion that CAD is, by and large, either genetically determined (in the case of younger patients) or the inescapable fate of old age in older patients. Are we simply heading towards a point where the conclusion is that diet simply has little impact on either increased risk, or prevention of coronary artery disease?

    Reply
    • Alex,
      What and how we eat is important for avoiding obesity and diabetes which impact risk of atherosclerosis. And we definitely see a certain percentage of those who are at the extremes of dietary intake saturated fat (Atkins, keto) who see worrisome elevations in apo B and/or LDL-C levels.
      The majority of individuals that I SEE have already downward modified their meat and SFA intake into a moderate or low range and will not significantly lower their ASCVd risk further by eliminating or further lowering meat/dairy intake.
      Dr P

      Reply
  7. Non human primates are frugivory and have been for millennia. Human beings, through evolutionary adaptation, are omnivores and quite capable of consuming “reasonable” amounts of animal flesh and saturated fats. Please note the success of the Inuit population. Although their life expectancy is 8-12 years lower than that of modern civilization, higher infant mortality and lack of modern medical facilities accounts for a large portion of that disparity.

    Reply
    • Let’s not forget the difference between grass fed and grain fed cattle. I understand the fat profiles are quite different. Cattle have not evolved to eat grain, nor have we evoled to eat grain fed cattle. In Australia at least, it gets even harder as cattle can still be described as grass fed after being “finished off” by being grain fed for the last 6 months

      Reply
    • At least in Alaska, major non-plant components of the traditional Eskimo diet are marine mammals, caribou, and fish. In each case the fat is largely unsaturated.

      Reply
  8. Non human primates are frugivory and have been for millennia. Human beings, through evolutionary adaptation, are omnivores and quite capable of consuming “reasonable” amounts of animal flesh and saturated fats. Please note the success of the Inuit population. Although their life expectancy is 8-12 years lower than that of modern civilization, higher infant mortality and lack of modern medical facilities accounts for a large portion of that disparity.

    Reply
  9. Julia Child often referenced American’s obsession with low fat diets, particularly their disdain for butter. This despite so many Americans dropping like flies from obesity/heart disease. Jack LaLanne said many times, “If man made it, don’t eat it,” A little of this and a little of that. Operative word here is, little…

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    • Robert,
      I feel that dietary experiments in animals other than humans can generate hypotheses and develop possible mechanistic data. However, their bodies differ substantially from humans and more often than not animal experiment generated hypotheses are disproven.
      dr. P

      Reply

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