Replacing red meat with plant foods may lower heart disease risk

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In a study from Harvard University, scientists found that replacing red meat with high-quality plant foods such as beans, nuts, or soy may be associated with a modestly reduced risk of coronary heart disease (CHD).

They found Substituting whole grains and dairy products for total red meat, and eggs for processed red meat, might also reduce this risk.

Substantial evidence suggests that high consumption of red meat, especially processed red meat, such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages and salami, is linked to an increased risk of death and major chronic diseases, including coronary heart disease.

In the study, researchers examined the relationship between total, processed, and unprocessed red meat and the risk of CHD and estimate the effects of substituting other protein sources for red meat with CHD risk.

They used data from 43,272 US men (average age 53) from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study who were free from cardiovascular disease and cancer when they enrolled.

Medical records were used to track CHD events over this 30-year period. During this time, 4,456 CHD events were documented of which 1,860 were fatal.

The researchers found that for each one serving per day, total red meat was associated with a modest (12%) higher risk of CHD. Similar associations were seen for unprocessed (11% higher risk) and processed red meat (15% higher risk).

However, compared with red meat, intake of one serving per day of combined plant protein sources, including nuts, legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils), and soy was associated with a 14% lower risk of CHD.

This risk was lower still (18%) among men over the age of 65, and when compared with processed red meat (17%).

Substituting whole grains and dairy products (such as milk, cheese and yogurt) for total red meat and eggs for processed red meat was also associated with lower CHD risk.

This association was particularly strong among younger men, in whom the replacement of red meat with egg was associated with a 20% lower risk of CHD.

Replacing red meat with total fish was not associated with CHD risk. But the researchers say this could be due to the cooking methods (ie. deep frying) and the fact that this food group also included processed fish products.

This was a large study with repeated measures of diet during 30 years of follow-up, suggesting that the findings withstand scrutiny.

The researchers say their study shows that greater intakes of total, unprocessed, and processed red meat were associated with a higher risk of CHD, independent of other dietary and non-dietary heart disease risk factors.

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The study was conducted by Laila Al-Shaar et al and published in The BMJ.

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