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With prime grilling season around the corner, there’s no better time to start appreciating a good burger (or steak, or chicken breast). But when it comes to heart health, meat can get a bad wrap. Last week, a new study linked a meat-free diet with a reduced risk of heart disease. And while there have been multiple studies linking vegetarianism with longevity in recent years, this one takes the cake on scope with more than 70,000 subjects studied. But some researchers still aren’t buying that forgoing meat is the only path to healthy eating — and there’s an increasingly large body of evidence to back them up.

The Study

Researchers from Loma Linda University followed 73,308 Seventh-day Adventists over a period of six years, gathering self-reported data about their dietary habits and health. The researchers recorded whether or not participants ate meat, also noting those who avoided meat but still ate fish, dairy, and eggs (for the purposes of the study, these subjects were included in the “vegetarian” group). They found vegetarians were 19 percent less likely to die from heart disease during the six-year period — and 12 percent less likely to die from any other cause — compared with their carnivorous counterparts.

The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) as a continuation of research on the health habits of Seventh-day Adventists in California, a group noted for their impressive longevity. The religion encourages followers to adopt a mostly vegetarian or vegan diet which, along with tenants like abstinence from tobacco and alcohol, is often cited as a reason they live a few years longer than the average American. (Unclear how much of that can be attributed to good old California sunshine.)

Is It Legit?

Surprisingly, it’s not — at least not for everyone. As online outlets picked up the news last week, it seemed like we finally had an answer: Meat does not have any place in a healthy diet. But the study — despite its huge scope — doesn’t actually prove eating meat causes early death, nor does it mean carnivores are automatically less healthy than anyone else.

While the Loma Linda researchers compiled some impressive stats on one community’s dietary habits, they weren’t able to control for all factors that could contribute to a vegetarianism-longevity linkage. In a response published in the same journal, Dr. Robert Baron suggests that within the study’s “vegetarian” group, the great variety of diets makes it difficult to draw any decisive conclusions. “… Patients who self-identify as vegetarian have not yet provided much information about what they eat,” writes Baron, citing one of several confounding factors. Beyond measuring meat consumption, “Clinicians… need to assess intake of total calories, added sugars and sugary drinks, refined grains, salt, saturated and trans fats, alcohol, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and oils.”

It’s also important to remember that the study looked at a very specific group with a particular lifestyle — albeit with more than 73,000 individuals. And while the study’s “meat-eating” group had a greater risk of mortality, it couldn’t account for what they weren’t eating. For example, the carnivores could have consumed fewer fiber-rich veggies, a deficiency that may hurt heart health more than chowing down on steak Dietary fiber intake and reduced risk of coronary heart disease in US men and women. Bazzano, L.A., He, J., Ogden, L.G., et al. Department of Epidemiology, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Archives of Internal Medicine. 2003 Sep 8;163(16):1897-904.

That’s not to discount this study’s impressive scope and importance to a particular community. But implying a cause-and-effect link between meat and heart disease is a tricky business. Yes, it’s a common (though not necessarily correct) belief that saturated fat causes heart disease. But research reviews suggest there’s a big discrepancy between what health groups advise and what studies actually say when it comes to fat consumption Saturated fat and cardiovascular disease: the discrepancy between the scientific literature and dietary advice. Hoenselaar, R. Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, High School of Arnhem and Nijmegen, The Netherlands. Nutrition. 2012 Feb;28(2):118-23.. And there’s remarkably little research that says fat itself causes cardiovascular trouble; there is, however, plenty of evidence suggesting it’s what we eat with fats — like high glycemic carbs — that contributes to inflammation associated with heart disease Saturated Fat, carbohydrates and cardiovascular disease. Kuipers, R.S., de Graaf, D.J., Luxwolda, M.F., et al. University Medical Center Groningen, The Netherlands. Netherlands Journal of Medicine. 2011 Sep;69(9):372-8.. That’s partially why excess triglycerides — a type of fat that can build up in our arteries — are so often linked to sugar consumption.

Meat is commonly cited as a root cause of heart disease, even without a proven cause-and-effect relationship. And as the Loma Linda study illustrates, some individuals may benefit from going meat-free. But without a proven link between fat consumption and heart disease irrespective of other dietary factors, being a carnivore is hardly analogous to a death wish. Finding what works best for the individual will be a process based on clinical history, personal preference, and input from trusted medical professionals — not just the hottest studies to hit the blogosphere.

Photo: kightp

Do you think eating meat contributes to heart disease? Sound off below and tweet the author @d_tao.

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