If you only give up one thing to be healthier, it should be red meat. That's the conclusion of the latest study that shows eating red meat can be harmful to your heart by changing the size, shape, and function of your heart muscle. It's the most definitive study yet to show that a diet high in red meat raises your risk of heart disease, not just by elevating cholesterol or other cofactors that raise the lifetime risk of heart disease, but by changing the heart itself.

The study of data from nearly 20,000 individuals in England is just the latest study to confirm that red meat is bad for you, but this time the researchers found out why. They used imaging to look at the areas of the heart like the ventricle, which are key indicators of heart health.

In previous studies on red meat, a diet high in meat has been tied to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer, and the World Health Organization has classified red and processed meats as class 1 carcinogens, the same classification given to cigarette smoking. And as if this new study was not convincing enough, previous research over the past several decades has confirmed that a diet high in saturated fat, the kind found in red meat, is a risk factor for high cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, and strokes.

This latest study, published in 2021, found that a greater intake of red and processed meat is associated with worse heart function.

“Previous studies have shown links between greater red meat consumption and increased risk of heart attacks or death from heart disease,” study author Dr. Zahra Raisi-Estabragh of the Queen Mary University of London, said. “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 [red meat and] cardiovascular disease.”

The researchers examined associations of self-reported intake of red and processed meat with heart anatomy and function.

Three types of heart measures were looked at: Magnetic resonance of heart function, such as volume of the ventricles, and measures of the pumping function. Second, images that showed the shape and texture of the heart, both of which can indicate the health of the heart muscle. Third, the elasticity of the blood vessels since stretchy arteries are healthier.

The data were adjusted for factors that might influence the heart's health including age, gender, smoking, alcohol, exercise, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and body mass index.

The researchers found that a greater intake of red and processed meat was associated with worse functioning of the heart across all measures studied. Specifically, individuals with higher meat intake had smaller ventricles, poorer heart function, and stiffer arteries – which makes for worse cardiovascular health, according to the authors.

The researchers then compared these results with individuals who regularly ate oily fish, and found that as the amount of oily fish consumption rose, heart function improved. Specifically, the arteries were stretchier.

“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.

Other factors, such as high cholesterol, could be the reason for the link between meat and heart disease, added Dr. Raisi-Estabragh. “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.”

The fact that red meat can damage the heart directly is an important finding since most of the prior evidence had been on the role of cholesterol in clogging the arteries. “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,” Dr. Raisi-Estabragh said. “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.”

This study comes as just the latest in a series of studies that have found red meat to be linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Another study done in 2021 uncovered three mechanisms that raised the risk of cardiovascular disease.

3 ways that red meat is known to affect cardiovascular health:

1. By elevating levels of LDL cholesterol, or so-called "bad" cholesterol, which leads to plaque and blockages in the arteries. This is caused by saturated fat in the meat, which elevates blood lipids and leads to high cholesterol.

2. By changing your gut microbiome, the tiny bacteria can help digest food. When you eat more red meat you grow unhealthy bacteria and it causes your body to increase the release of TMAO, which is known to lead to the hardening of your arteries

3. By increasing sodium in your diet: Meat is often processed with sodium, especially meats like pepperoni, ham, and other deli slices. which is known to elevate blood pressure and require the heart to work harder to circulate blood to the body.

These three factors are known to be linked to cardiovascular disease, and this study reviewed data from 1.4 million meat-eaters and found that regularly digging into a steak or grabbing a burger (or ham sandwich) increases your risk of heart disease by 18 percent. But the other study that looked at heart imaging was unique since it recorded a direct effect on the size, shape, and pumping function of the heart and not just the related conditions above.

Read More: Is Meat Bad for You? 2021 Study Links Red Meat to Heart Disease

It's never too early to start eating plant-based.

It takes years and even decades for heart disease to show up, so avoiding meat early in life is a smart choice, especially where heart health is concerned.

Lately more younger consumers are choosing to forgo meat for the planet, but an interesting study that looked at how a plant-based diet earlier in life affects health decades later and found that going plant-based lowers your risk of heart disease 30 years later.

More Millennials are going plant-based or flexitarian than ever, and 54 percent of people say they are staying away from meat, and many are motivated as much by the impact eating red meat has on the environment as it does on their health. But whatever your motivation for eating plant-based it will also help keep you heart-healthier later in life.

Read More: 54% of Millennials Are Eating Plant-Based or Call Themselves "Flexitarians"

How much protein do you really need? Not as much as you are eating.

People usually load up on red meat because they believe they need the protein. But most Americans eat nearly twice as much protein as they need. An average sedentary adult needs 0.8 grams of protein per kg of body weight.
For example, a person who weighs 75 kg (165 pounds) should consume 60 grams of protein a day. That number increases as you age and naturally lose muscle mass, It can also be higher for someone who is training for an event and breaking down muscle fiber through strenuous exercise.

Eating too much protein, or any other macro-nutrient is associated with obesity and inflammation, as well as heart disease. Another recent study found that most Americans eat more than twice the recommended daily amount of protein and that this puts them at higher risk of heart disease.

"The average adult American consumes sulfur amino acids (SAA) at levels far above the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR) and recent preclinical data suggest that higher levels of SAA intake may be associated with a variety of aging-related chronic diseases," the study found.

Additionally, protein derived from plant-based sources is healthier, the study's authors concluded. "Diets lower in SAA (close to the EAR) are associated with reduced risk for cardiometabolic diseases. Low SAA dietary patterns rely on plant-derived protein sources over meat-derived foods. Given the high intake of SAA among most adults, our findings may have important public health implications for chronic disease prevention."

You get plenty of protein from a plant-based diet

Dr. Joel Kahn, a plant-based cardiologist suggests that instead of a diet high in red meat and animal products, focus on getting your protein from legumes such as beans and pulses, and fill your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. Kahn explains that the "greener" Mediterranean diet is the goal, which means eating most of your meals from plant-based foods that grow in the ground and substituting animal products with legumes and plant-based proteins.

Even on a vegan or vegetarian diet people can easily get 60 to 80 grams of protein throughout the day from sources like beans, legumes, nuts, vegetables like broccoli, and whole grains like quinoa, as well as nuts and seeds.

Meanwhile, more protein is not necessarily better for you since once your body gets enough of any macronutrient – carbohydrates, protein, or fat – it converts the extra to fat. The solution is to eat whole plant-based foods, avoid red meat and animal products and avoid over-eating.

Bottom Line: Avoid Red Meat to Be Heart Healthier

New research suggests that red meat, along with processed meats, can change the functioning of the heart, and a diet of fish, fruit and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds is a healthier way to eat to reduce your risk of heart disease.

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