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Red meat has long been associated with higher risks of heart disease. 3sign/Getty Images
  • Researchers are reporting that the way our bodies digest red meat may be a contributing factor in elevated risks of heart disease.
  • Experts recommend cutting red meat consumption in half and eating a more plant-based diet.
  • They add that other lifestyle factors such as sleep, exercise, and stress can also contribute to heart disease risk.

Traditional thinking says the health consequences on your cardiovascular system of eating red meat result from the high levels of saturated fats in the meat, which increases blood cholesterol levels.

Now, a new study is reporting that the chemicals your body produces to digest red meat could also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Researchers used health data from the Cardiovascular Health Study compiled in 1989 and 1990. Altogether, there were 5,888 adults recruited for the original study.

Scientists completing the new study used data from close to 4,000 participants. They were over 65 with an average age of 73. Two-thirds were female and 88 percent were white.

The participants were free of cardiovascular disease at the start of the study and lived in one of four communities: Sacramento, California; Hagerstown, Maryland; Winston-Salem, North Carolina; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Participants initially answered questionnaires on their dietary habits, including their consumption of red meat, processed meat, fish, poultry, and eggs. They reported how often they ate these foods, ranging from never to daily or almost every day.

A second questionnaire asked about the frequency of consumption over the past 12 months.

Fasting blood samples were taken and researchers tested these for gut microbiome previously linked to red meat, including Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).

According to a press release from Tufts University, the researchers found that:

  • Higher intakes of unprocessed red meat, total meat, and total animal source foods were associated with a higher incidence of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease (ASCVD) during the median follow-up of 12.5 years
  • The higher risk of ASCVD associated with meat intake was also partially mediated by levels of blood glucose and insulin, and systematic inflammation
  • Consumption of fish, poultry, and eggs was not significantly associated with ASCVD

“Eating more meat, especially red meat and processed meat is linked to higher risk of cardiovascular disease, even later in life,” said Meng Wang, PhD, first co-author of the study and a post-doctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute.

“Metabolites generated by our gut microbes from nutrients [found] in red meat, as well as blood sugar and general inflammation, appear to explain much of this elevated risk – more so than blood cholesterol or blood pressure effects,” she added. “Components in red meat, like L-carnitine and heme iron, may play a more important role in health than saturated fat and cholesterol and should be studied further.”

“Fish, poultry, and eggs may be healthier protein sources compared to red and processed meat,” continued Wang. “Novel treatments could be developed to target the interaction between red meat and gut microbiome to reduce cardiovascular risk.”

According to the American Heart Association, a heart-healthy diet includes:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grains and products made up mostly of whole grains
  • Healthy proteins, such as legumes, nuts, fish, seafood, low fat or nonfat dairy, and lean, unprocessed meat and poultry
  • Liquid non-tropical vegetable oils

“I recommend a mostly plant-based diet,” says Dr. Rigved Tadwalkar, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.

“A plant-based diet is low in saturated fat, and the high fiber content helps lower cholesterol,” he told Healthline. “Moreover, a plant-based diet leads to a greater diversity of bacteria in the gut, which is important for biochemical functions related to improving heart health. Plant-based diets reduce the risk and serve as a possible treatment for various conditions implicated in heart disease, including high blood pressure and diabetes.”

For people who aren’t interested in changing over to a plant-based diet, Tadwalkar suggests eating more plant-based foods and reducing meat consumption. He suggests reducing meat consumption by one-half and inserting plant-based foods in their place.

“Up to two servings per week of meat, poultry, fish, and eggs is reasonable and allows for health benefits and reducing cardiovascular risk,” Tadwalkar said.

Besides diet, lifestyle habits are essential to your overall health, including heart health.

The American Heart Association suggests:

  • Expend at least as many calories as you take in. You might need to lower your caloric intake or increase your physical exercise to balance them out
  • Aim for 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week

Sleep is important too.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least seven hours of sleep each night for adults. Not getting enough sleep can lead to health problems, such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity

If you have trouble sleeping, it might help to keep a regular sleep schedule, go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

Other ways to improve sleep include:

  • Get enough natural light, especially early in the day
  • Increase physical activity but avoid exercising within a few hours of going to bed
  • Try using a blue light filter for your computer or phone if you use them close to bedtime
  • Avoid eating or drinking within a few hours of bedtime
  • Sleep in a cool, dark, and quiet room

Stress can also increase your risk of heart disease.

Stress can increase inflammation, leading to high blood pressure and poor sleep. It can also stop you from regular exercise and making healthy food choices.