Eating processed red meat increases risk of potentially fatal heart failure in men, according to a new study in the American Heart Association journal Circulation: Heart Failure.

Almost 6 million Americans have heart failure, and half of these people will die within 5 years of being diagnosed. Meanwhile, health care costs and loss of productivity resulting from heart failure are estimated to total $34 billion each year.

For best heart health, the American Heart Association (AHA) recommend a diet that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts. They also suggest eating fish high in omega-3 – such as salmon, trout and herring – at least three times a week.

The AHA recommend that people should eat more chicken, fish and beans than red meat. “It’s OK to eat red meat as long as you limit the amount,” their guidelines state but suggest that people should choose lean meat and limit their intake to less than 6 oz per day.

The Cohort of Swedish Men study, conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, is the first study to separately examine the effects of unprocessed and processed red meats – such as sausages, cold cuts, blood pudding and liver pate – on heart failure risk.

The study, which recorded details on food intake and other lifestyle factors, followed 37,035 men aged 45-79 years old with no history of heart failure, ischemic heart disease or cancer from 1998 to 2010.

Analyzing data from the 12-year study period, the researchers found that 2,891 of the men developed heart failure and 266 died from heart failure. The men who ate the most processed red meat (75 g or more a day) were 28% more likely to develop heart failure, compared with men who ate the least (25 g or less a day).

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The men who ate the most processed red meat were more than twice as likely to die from heart failure, compared with the men who ate the least.

Also, the men who ate the most processed red meat were more than twice as likely to die from heart failure, compared with the men who ate the least.

The researchers calculated that for each 50 g daily increase in consumption of processed meat – which is about one or two extra slices of ham – the risk of heart failure incidence increased by 8% and the risk of death from heart failure increased by 38%.

However, the study did not observe any associations between heart failure or death and people who ate unprocessed red meat.

The researchers say that their findings are consistent with the results of the Physicians’ Health study, in which men who ate the most red meat had a 24% higher risk of heart failure incidence, compared with the men who ate the least red meat. They also expect to find similar links in a study currently being conducted in women.

Based on the findings, study lead author Joanna Kaluza, PhD, and assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition at Warsaw University of Life Sciences in Poland, offers the following dietary advice:

To reduce your risk of heart failure and other cardiovascular diseases, we suggest avoiding processed red meat in your diet and limiting the amount of unprocessed red meat to one to two servings per week or less. Instead, eat a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grain products, nuts and increase your servings of fish.”

Last year, Medical News Today reported on a study that found a link between eating processed meat and colorectal cancer risk.