Butcher shop boxes of raw red meat

Heart Disease and Red Meat

Does eating red meat cause heart disease?

14 October 2022

Many Australians like nothing better than tucking into a hearty steak or a sausage sizzle.  But in recent years a body of evidence has emerged showing a clear link between eating red meat and heart disease - and it appears even a small amount can raise your risk. 

So, just why could red meat be bad for you, how much should you be eating and how significant is the risk? 

Why could red meat be bad for your heart health? 

Until recently, it was thought that it was mainly the saturated fat in red meat that raised your risk of heart disease, but new research published by the American Heart Association reveals it’s the chemicals produced by our gut bacteria whilst digesting red meat and animal products that significantly raise the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Professor Jason Kovacic, Executive Director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, says this research sheds important new light on what is occurring in the body when we eat red meat.

Professor Kovacic says: “For years we’ve believed it was mainly the saturated fat in red meat and its effect on our cholesterol levels that raised the risk of heart disease. But this important new study reveals its processes that involve the bacteria in our gut and how they act on the red meat that could be a significant culprit.

"What these researchers found is that chemicals produced in our digestive system by gut microbes when digesting red meat are likely to play a key role in the increased risk of heart attack and stroke. They also found that the consumption of red meat is likely to have a major impact on our blood sugar and inflammation levels."

How much does eating red meat raise your risk of heart disease? 

One of the largest studies ever conducted on this question by the University of Oxford in 2021 anyalsed the risk of heart disease associated with eating different types of meat. 

 The study found the following:

The researchers concluded that if everyone cut back on eating unprocessed red meat by three-quarters or stopped eating processed meats altogether the number of people dying from coronary heart disease could be significantly reduced. From 10 in 100 of the population – to 9 in 100 – a drop of 10 percent.  

It’s worth noting that whilst this study included data on 1.4 million people, it was largely self-reported data – but its findings are still highly significant. 

But it’s not just heart disease you should be concerned about when eating red meat. 

Researchers at the University of Oxford also found a clear risk of eating red meat and cancer. A 2019 study found people who eat red and processed meat four or more times a week have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who consume it twice a week. It also found that eating just one slice of processed meat per day can increase the risk of colon cancer. 

How much red meat should you be eating? 

The advice is to cut back significantly in both the amount you eat and how many times a week you eat it.  

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends people should limit red meat consumption to no more than three portions per week. The British Heart Foundation also recommends no more than 70g of red meat in one go. To put that in context, three thin-cut slices of roast lamb weigh just 90g. 

Also, think about your plate and aim to make other food items the star of the show and red meat the side dish. 

As for processed meats, which are also often high in salt (with salt also being linked to a higher risk of heart disease), the advice is to cut them out altogether if you can.  

It’s worth noting that the World Health Organisation referred to processed meats as "carcinogenic to humans”, putting them in the same boat as tobacco smoke, alcohol, plutonium, or polluted air.

What are heart-healthy foods? 

We should be embracing a heart-healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean poultry, and fish.  Focus more on plant-based proteins such as nuts, peas, seeds, and lentils. 

 Eating less red meat is also good for the planet too, with cattle being the biggest source of agricultural greenhouse gases worldwide. Learn more heart healthy eating tips from our Heart Disease Prevention Guide.  

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years