A high dietary consumption of red meat is linked to a higher chance of developing the common inflammatory bowel condition – diverticulitis. Reducing red meat consumption (or at the very least, replacing it partly with poultry or fish) may lower the risk.

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Diverticulitis is a digestive disease in which large portions of the bowel become inflamed. Although the cause is uncertain, several risk factors have been described, including obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, a family history of the disease, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Now, we might have to add a new one to the list: red meat.

Researchers assessed the link between diverticulitis and several types of meat, including red meat, poultry, and fish. They analyzed 46,500 men aged 40 to 75 from 1986 and 2012. Every four years, they were asked how often they consume the types of meat, with options ranging from ‘never’ or ‘less than once a month,’ to ‘six or more times a day.’

During the study period, 764 men developed diverticulitis. Firstly, red meat consumption was linked to more smoking, less exercise, more ingestion of inflammatory pills and less consumption of fiber. But even after they compensated for all those factors, total red meat intake was associated with heightened diverticulitis risk. Each daily serving (per week) was associated with an 18% increased risk. However, risk peaked at six servings a week.

It’s not exactly clear why this happens. It may be the red meat itself, which carries as been linked to the presence of inflammatory chemicals, such as C reactive protein and ferritin, but it could also be that the meat affects the bacteria in your gut. For what it’s worth, even though diverticulitis accounts for more than 200,000 hospital admissions every year in the US at an annual cost of $US 2 billion, we don’t really know its exact cause. This too was an observational study and it should be said that correlation does not imply causation. In other words, red meat was associated with a higher risk, but it doesn’t strictly mean that it is causing the disease. But the association is significant and it makes a lot of sense to avoid red meat if you want to avoid diverticulitis.

“Diverticulitis is a common disease with a substantial clinical and economic burden,” researchers write. “Besides dietary fibre, the role of other foods in the prevention of diverticulitis is underexplored. Red meat intake, particularly unprocessed red meat, was associated with an increased risk of diverticulitis. The findings provide practical dietary guidance for patients at risk of diverticulitis.”

Journal Reference: Yin Cao, Lisa L Strate, Brieze R Keeley, Idy Tam, Kana Wu, Edward L Giovannucci, Andrew T Chan. Meat intake and risk of diverticulitis among men. Gut, 2017; gutjnl-2016-313082 DOI: 10.1136/gutjnl-2016-313082

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