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Men who regularly eat processed red meats may raise their risk of developing heart failure and dying from it, Swedish researchers say.
And as consumption of processed red meats goes up, the study concluded, so does the risk for heart failure, which means the heart can't pump blood as well as it should.
Men who ate roughly 2.6 ounces a day -- the equivalent of 2 or 3 slices of ham -- of processed red meats had a 28 percent higher risk of heart failure and more than twice the risk of death from heart failure compared with men who ate less than one ounce of processed meat daily, the researchers found.
However, the study doesn't prove a steady diet of bacon or ham will cause heart failure, it can only point to an association, said one expert not involved in the research.
Still, no association was found between unprocessed red meat such as beef or pork and heart failure, the researchers said.
"Heart failure is one of the most common, costly and deadly cardiac conditions," said Dr. Gregg Fonarow, a spokesman for the American Heart Association. It's expected that more than 800,000 new cases of heart failure will occur in the United States this year, and about 50 percent of those diagnosed will die within five years.
Based on their findings -- published online June 12 in Circulation: Heart Failure -- the researchers recommend not eating processed red meat at all and having only one to two servings or less of unprocessed red meat a week.
Processed red meats, which are preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives, typically contain salt, nitrates, phosphates and other food additives. "Smoked and grilled meats also contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, all of which may contribute to the increased heart failure risk," study co-author Alicja Wolk, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, said in a journal news release.
"Unprocessed meat is free from food additives and usually has a lower amount of [salt]," she added.
Participants answered questions about diet and lifestyle. Processed meat questions dealt with consumption of sausages, cold cuts (ham/salami), blood pudding/sausages and liver pate over the last year. Unprocessed meat questions covered pork and beef/veal, including hamburger or ground-minced meat.
Then the men were followed from 1998 until they were diagnosed with heart failure or died, or until the study's end in 2010.
Overall, nearly 2,900 men were diagnosed with heart failure and 266 died from the condition.
The risk associated with heart failure appeared to rise 8 percent with every 1.7 ounces of processed red meat eaten daily, while the risk of dying from heart failure jumped 38 percent for each increase, the investigators found.
The researchers said they expect to find similar results in a study of women.
A group representing the meat industry disputed the findings.
"Heart failure and cardiovascular diseases are complex conditions that appear to have a variety of factors associated with them, from genetics to lifestyle," said Betsy Booren, vice president of scientific affairs at the American Meat Institute Foundation. "Attempts to link heart failure to a single type of food oversimplifies this complex disease," she said.
Booren believes the study makes other "questionable assumptions."
She said, "The data is based off a single food frequency questionnaire given at the start of a 12-year period and assumes this reflects a person's diet over the entirety of the study period. The researchers themselves note that the questionnaire is only 38 percent accurate."
Booren also believes that it is tough to point to cause-and-effect in such a study, which "struggles to disentangle other lifestyle and dietary habits from meat and processed meat consumption."
Dr. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, who had no part in the study, agreed that the design of the study isn't suitable "for definitive assertions about cause and effect. But the implication of processed meat intake in the risk for heart failure is consistent with the overall weight of the evidence," he said.
In a 2013 study published in BMC Medicine, Swiss researchers found that people who ate the most processed meat increased their risk of dying early by 44 percent. In broader terms, if people ate less processed meat, the number of premature deaths overall would drop by almost 3 percent.
Like the current study, that research only showed an association between eating processed meat and an increased risk of dying early, and not a cause-and-effect link.
Katz said that people who eat meat, but do so selectively, are the exception rather than the norm.
"Most people who eat meat include processed meats, such as deli meats and sausage, in the mix," he said. "Avoiding processed meat can be quite challenging, since even [healthy-sounding] options such as sliced turkey or roast chicken may be subject to infusions of solutions containing both salt and sugar."
The American Heart Association recommends eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts, and limiting red meat and sugary foods and drinks.
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