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New study delves into link between red meat and heart disease

A steak on the grill of a barbecue restaurant in Buenos Aires. A new study says red meat is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and the reason may be your gut bacteria.MIGUEL MENDEZ/AFP via Getty Images

A new study led by researchers from Tufts University and the Cleveland Clinic sounds a familiar warning, saying the more red meat a person eats the higher the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The observational study, published Monday in the American Heart Association’s peer-reviewed journal Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, also used statistical methods to try to discern how meat might be having that effect and found several different possible mechanisms.

One, researchers said, was meat’s effect on the gut microbiome. Recent research has suggested that gut bacteria digesting red meat and other animal-source foods produce metabolites in the blood that can cause cardiovascular disease.

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“The interplay between diet, the gut microbiota, and microbial-generated metabolites increasingly appears to be a novel pathway linking [animal-source foods], especially red meat, to cardiovascular health,” the study said.

The paper’s co-first author, Meng Wang, a postdoctoral fellow at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, said in a statement from Tufts that the interactions “seem to be an important pathway for risk, which creates a new target for possible interventions to reduce heart disease.”

Dr. Ahmed Hasan a medical officer and program director in the Atherothrombosis and Coronary Artery Disease Branch at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, part of the NIH, said in the Tufts statement, “While more studies are needed, the current report provides a potential new target for preventing or treating heart disease in a subgroup of people who consume excessive amounts of red meat.” Hasan was not a part of the study.

The study, done by researchers from both the Friedman School at Tufts and the Cleveland Clinic Lerner Research Institute, looked at 3,931 men and women who did not have clinical cardiovascular disease at the outset. The participants were part of the Cardiovascular Health Study, an observational study of risk factors for cardiovascular disease in adults age 65 or older.

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Participants, who were followed for a median of 12½ years, gave blood samples, which allowed researchers to look at the metabolites in the blood, and they answered questionnaires about their diets.

The study’s other findings included that fish, poultry, and eggs “were not significantly associated with atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.”

The researchers noted that their study had limitations, including the fact that dietary habits were self-reported and the observational study could not prove cause-and-effect relationships.

The study is part of an ongoing collaboration between scientists at Tufts and the Cleveland Clinic who are looking into the role that the gut microbiome plays in human health, the statement said.


Martin Finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.