Replacing red meat with eggs, dairy or plant-based foods could cut heart disease risk, says Harvard study
04 Dec 2020 --- Eating plant-based foods, eggs and dairy instead of red meat can slash coronary heart disease (CHD), according to a Harvard University study of 43,000 US men.
Nutrition experts are now calling for policymakers to take this into account and make industry changes, as findings show plant and dairy protein substitutes can significantly lower disease risks.
“This study adds to the substantial body of evidence that higher consumption of red meat increases the risk of heart disease,” Laila al-Shaar, one of the study authors, tells NutritionInsight.
“Most of the studies on red meat and heart disease have largely looked at increasing red meat consumption while decreasing all other foods. In this study, however, we used a substitution analysis approach to understand how replacing red meat (total, processed, or unprocessed red meat) with another source of proteins was associated with the risk of heart disease.”
Shaar notes that the findings show replacing processed red meat with eggs or total red meats with plant foods is an effective way of reducing CHD risks.
Decades of red meat research
The findings are drawn from “The Health Professional Follow-Up Study,” which collected data on 43,000 male health workers, including dentists, veterinarians and physicians aged between 40 and 75.
Participants completed biennial questionnaires on lifestyle factors such as medical history, lifestyle and typical diet over 30 years.
After accounting for confounding risk factors such as smoking, researchers found an increased CHD prevalence among those consuming processed red meat of 15 percent above those that did not.
Similarly, for total red meat, a 12 percent higher risk was recorded, and for unprocessed red meat, an 11 percent higher risk.
Replacing red meat with eggs appeared to lend a substantially lowered risk factor, particularly for younger men, for whom rates in this category dropped by 20 percent.
“One interesting observation is that having eggs and dairy products rather than meat has also been shown to be associated with a lower risk of heart disease, which suggests that the health benefits of reducing meat consumption can be obtained without the need to give up animal products entirely,” says Dr. Ian Johnson, a nutrition researcher at the Quadrum Institute.
Overall, participants who consumed plant-based proteins such as beans, nuts or soy in place of red meats had a 14 percent lower risk of CHD.
Authors call for more plant-based “desirable policies”
Shaar says policymakers, industry and consumers need to use the results wisely.
“Dietary guidelines should continue to promote healthful plant-eating patterns and emphasize the importance of limiting the intake of red and processed meat. Policies supporting the consumption of healthy plant protein sources as alternatives to red meat would be desirable.”
“Moreover, offering healthy alternative foods for people planning to cut down their red meat intake, while ensuring their daily protein requirements are being met, would be an important step in the food industry,” she continues.
“Consumers wishing to improve their health may want to limit their red meat intake by replacing it with healthier protein sources such as nuts, legumes and soy.”
Several researchers and health experts have commented on the study and emphasize the importance of making dietary adjustments in line with its findings. However, due to the limitations of the research, calls for further investigations are being made.
“The results of this study are in line with the findings of many other studies which are assuring and supports the causality between red meat intake and increased CHD risk,” says Aygul Dagbasi, a dietitian at Imperial College London.
“However, it should also be noted that the study cohort only included white males who were all health care professionals (all belonging to one socio-economic group). This limits the generalizability of the findings to other ethnicities, females and other socio-economic groups.”
Dr. Ian Johnson echoed these concerns.
“As with much contemporary human nutrition research, this is an observational study, rather than an experimental intervention, and so it cannot establish the precise causes of the effects observed.”
Critically, however, was the observation that egg consumption can replace red meat to lower CHD risk, concludes Johnson.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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