The Red Meat-Diverticulitis Connection

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New research gives yet one more reason to cut back on your red meat consumption: It puts you at much greater risk of the painful, digestive disorder diverticulitis. A sweeping new 26-year study found that men who ate red meat six or more times a week were 58 percent more likely to develop it. 

Diverticulitis occurs when an infection or inflammation causes small pouches along the colon lining to form, causing symptoms ranging from, most commonly, stomach pain to diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, and even permanent scarring. Its primary causes are widely unknown, but it has become a widespread issue, sending some 200,000 Americans to the hospital every year.

For this study, gastroenterologists at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston analyzed data from more than 46,000 middle-aged male health care professionals. Periodically throughout the decades-long study, the men reported their meat-eating habits. By the end, nearly 800 men had developed diverticulitis. The guys who ate the most red meat had 58 percent higher risk — but it didn’t take six servings a week to make an impact. Each daily serving of red meat increased the likelihood of diverticulitis by 18 percent.

Surprisingly, the association was stronger for unprocessed red meats such as steak than for processed varieties like bacon. But according to lead researcher Dr. Andrew Chan, this could be simply because the men ate much less processed red meat overall, obscuring any potential connection.

Chan has a few theories as to how red meat influences diverticulitis. “It may be due to the composition of bacteria in the bowel, which are influenced by the foods we eat,” he says. “It’s possible that red meat lends itself to a type of bacteria that predisposes you to inflammation and the chronic low-lying infection that leads to diverticulitis.”

Neither chicken nor seafood elevated risk. In fact, the researchers determined that swapping out one daily serving of steak for poultry or fish could lower your odds by 20 percent. “We know red meat has more heme iron, which may change bowel flora in a different way than the components in chicken or fish,” Chan explains. “Or it could be that beneficial compounds in chicken and fish counteract the negative compounds in red meat. This shows that the types of meat you choose matters.”

Chan is still in favor of enjoying a fillet mignon or a few strips of bacon once in a while. “We are not by any means suggesting you should eat no red meat,” he says. “But given the potential consequences of heavy consumption — diverticulitis, but also colon cancer and heart disease — you should be cautious about how much you eat.”