by EBSCO Medical Review Board

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. It is caused by the gradual blockage of blood vessels. Foods we eat are one of the factors that affect health of blood vessels. They may increase or decrease build up of plaque on walls of blood vessels. As this plaque grows, the blood flow is slowed. Eventually it may become completely blocked and stop blood flow to nearby tissue. If it is in the heart, it will cause a heart attack.

Current diet trends suggest that red meats do not increase the risk for heart disease. Researchers collected information to look for possible links between foods and cardiovascular (heart) disease (CVD). The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that a higher intake of everything but fish was significantly linked to a higher risk of CVD.

About the Study

The study pooled 29,682 participants from 6 cohort studies who were an average of 53 years of age. Their diets were self-reported from 1985-2002.

The study found:

  • A 3% to 7% risk of CVD and early death in people who ate red meat and processed meat twice a week.
  • A 4% higher risk of CVD in people who ate two servings per week of poultry.
  • No link between eating fish and CVD or dying from any cause.

How Does This Affect You?

Cohort studies are observational studies. This means that researchers look at events to find links. They cannot make absolute claims of cause and effect. This study found that there may be a link between eating processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry and CVD. The reason for the link is not clear. Diet studies as a whole can be difficult. Most are based on self-reported food logs from participants which may not always be accurate. It may also only offer a one time shot of someone's diet which can change greatly over time. Randomized control trials can show stronger links between cause and effect but it would be unethical to test diets this way since it would mean having someone eat a diet that is not healthful.

Diet research results can be frustrating because they seem to conflict with each other. It is best to focus on factors that have shown consistent results. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Try to eat fish at least twice a week. Talk to your doctor about your risk of heart disease any special diet changes you may need to make.


American Heart Association 

Family Doctor—American Academy of Family Physicians 


Dietary considerations for cardiovascular disease risk reduction. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: . Updated December 11, 2019. Accessed February 6, 2020.

Zhong VW, Van Horn L, et al. Associations of processed meat, unprocessed red meat, poultry, or fish intake with incident cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2020 Feb 3. [Epub ahead of print].

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board
  • Review Date: 01/2020