The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that most adults consume between five and seven ounce equivalents of protein per day, and limit red meat
It then breaks this recommendation down further, providing even more guidance based on protein type, offering separate intake suggestions for proteins in three groups: red meat, poultry and eggs; seafood; and nuts, seeds and soy products.
The recommended intake of meat, poultry and eggs is between 23-33 ounce equivalents per week, depending on total calorie intake. These joint guidelines made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) go on to report that females tend to consume these suggested amounts while males often exceed them, the latter consuming around 45 ounce equivalents weekly.
A new 2020 study adds that meat (both processed and unprocessed), poultry, and fish generally account for 26% of an adult’s total energy intake. However, this same piece of research also states that for every two servings of red meat and chicken consumed, a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease appears to increase.
Study links meat and poultry consumption with cardiovascular health
This cohort study was conducted by Northwestern University and results were published in JAMA Internal Medicine on February 3, 2020. It involved the analysis of six cohorts, each of which collected diet data between 1985-2002. In total, the data was ascertained from 29,682 participants.
Researchers in the 2020 study used this information to compare against whether the subjects in those cohorts had developed cardiovascular disease, experienced some type of cardiovascular event, or died from cardiovascular causes before Aug. 31, 2016. The median follow-up period was 19 years, with some subjects being monitored for up to 30 years.
Northwestern’s researchers found that two servings of processed meat per week were associated with a higher number of cardiovascular incidents. This may come as no surprise to those in the health care field since processed foods have a long history of being associated with increased disease risk.
However, researchers also noted that for every two additional servings of unprocessed red meat or chicken per week, there also appears to be an increase in cardiovascular incidents. The only food group that did not seem to be associated with increased cardiovascular risk was fish. Two additional servings of red meat were also linked to an increase in all-cause mortality, with no such connection found for the other two foods.
For purposes of this study, one serving of unprocessed red meat or chicken was roughly four ounces. Processed meat serving size varied depending on the food, with one serving of bacon being two slices, one hot dog considered a serving, etc. The serving size for fish was three ounces.
Finding a healthier alternative to red meat
Based on these findings, patients may be inclined or advised to lower their consumption of red meat and chicken, thereby potentially reducing their risk of cardiovascular disease or death. How do they do this and still meet their recommended intake of protein daily?
A 2021 study in the International Journal of Epidemiology also reviewed data collected from six cohorts — presumably, the same six cohorts as in the 2020 study since the total number of participants and time frames was the same — and noted that replacing meat and poultry with nuts, whole grains, legumes and fish was associated with reduced risks of cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality. Additionally, the more servings of meat and poultry that are substituted, the more these risks appear to be reduced.
Each of these alternative protein sources has been linked to positive health benefits. For example, a 2017 study of Brazil nuts suggests that they are a good source of selenium, magnesium, copper and zinc. Another 2017 study reports that legumes have both anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties while also providing beneficial effects on the gut.
Making a transition from a diet high in animal proteins to one that is primarily plant-based proteins may not be easy for some patients. To make this switch easier, Harvard Health Publishing contributor Katherine D. McManus, MS, RD, LDN, director of the Department of Nutrition and Director of the Dietetic Internship at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital (a Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate), recommends thinking of meat as “a garnish instead of a centerpiece.” Additional recommendations include consuming whole grains for breakfast and making vegetables the focus for lunch and dinner.