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Processed and unprocessed red meat consumption and hypertension in women


Background: High processed red meat consumption is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease. The high sodium content of processed red meat could increase blood pressure and explain the association with cardiovascular disease.

Objective: We evaluated the relation between the consumption of unprocessed and processed red meat and incident hypertension.

Design: In a prospective cohort of 44,616 disease-free French women who responded to a validated dietary questionnaire, we observed 10,256 incident cases of hypertension between 1993 and 2008. Cases were identified through self-reports of diagnosed or treated hypertension. Multivariate Cox regression models were adjusted for age, education, smoking, physical activity, body mass index, menopause, menopausal hormone therapy, and alcohol, bread, coffee, and fruit and vegetable consumption.

Results: Women who consumed ≥5 servings of processed red meat/wk (50 g = 1 serving) had a 17% higher rate of hypertension than that of women who consumed <1 serving/wk (HR: 1.17; 95% CI: 1.09, 1.26; P-trend = 0.0002). No association was observed between unprocessed red meat consumption and hypertension. When women who consumed ≥5 servings of unprocessed red meat/wk (100 g = 1 serving) with women who consumed <1 serving unprocessed red meat/wk, the multivariate HR was 0.99 (95% CI: 0.91, 1.08; P-trend = 0.63).

Conclusions: In this large prospective cohort of French women, we observed an association between the consumption of processed red meat and hypertension. We observed no association for unprocessed red meat consumption and hypertension.


Alex’s notes: In 2010, three researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health put a nail in the “red meat is bad” coffin with a publication titled Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Thankfully this paper lead to some major revisions in dietary recommendations, with the American Heart Association refining their dietary recommendations to specify the limitation of processed meats rather than red meat in general.

Despite the above, there are still a large number of people who believe that red meat causes health problems, especially because of its saturated fat. I’m going to digress and ignore the critical thinking skills argument that we evolved for thousands of years eating red meat. Although common sense gets us pretty far, we are still fortunate to have studies like the one at hand that continue to beat the dead horse until everyone gets the message. Noting that the largest difference between processed and unprocessed meats was the nitrates, nitrites, and sodium, the authors looked at the association of meat consumption with hypertension in over 44,000 French women.

Unprocessed red meat was defined as beef, pork, veal, horse, and sheep, whereas processed red meat was defined as sausage, salami, bacon, and ham. Unfortunately, food intake was assessed with a diet-history questionnaire, which is notoriously inaccurate (more than likely because they contain 208 food items with 11 categories for consumption frequency – yah, I would probably screw that up too). Moreover, one serving of unprocessed red meat was 100g (3.5 oz.) while one serving of processed meats was only 50g.

“Ham represented 55% of processed red meat intake, sausages represented 29% of processed red meat intake, salami represented 9% of processed red meat intake, and bacon represented 7% of processed red meat intake. Main contributors to unprocessed red meat were beef (33%), pork (24%), mutton (21%), and veal (18%).”

Interestingly, higher education, being a non-smoker, and coffee consumption were associated with less processed red meat consumption and more unprocessed red meat consumption. As for hypertension, women who consumed more than five servings (250g) of processed red meat had a 17% higher rate of hypertension than those who consumed less than one serving (50g). That shouldn’t be surprising, and neither should this,

“There was no association between unprocessed red meat consumption and incident hypertension [the HR for comparison of extreme categories was 0.99 (95% CI: 0.91, 1.08; P-trend = 0.63].”

So eat your steak in piece. Red meat won’t increase your risk of hypertension, and the previous meta-analysis shows it won’t increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, or diabetes either.

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