Red Meat Tied to Significant Diverticulitis Risk Increase

Diverticula are small pouches that can form in the lining of the digestive system, most often in the large intestine (colon). They are common in people over age 40, and in and of themselves do not generally cause problems.

However, one or more of the pouches can become inflamed or infected, a condition known as diverticulitis. This can cause severe abdominal pain, fever, nausea and a marked change in your bowel habits. While mild diverticulitis can be treated with rest, changes in the diet and antibiotics, when diverticulitis is severe or recurring, it can require surgery.

So it is significant to the extent that a new study has found that red meat consumption appears directly implicated in greater diverticulitis risk. The increasing nuance with which the media reports the potential roles that fat in general, saturated fat in particular, animal proteins and red meat may or may not play in the risk of heart disease, metabolic syndrome, atherosclerosis and other negative health outcomes has led more than a handful of people to conclude few if any foods can neatly be described as absolutely “bad for you” nowadays (a view not exactly shared by most medical professionals).

The present study, then, offers at least one clear cut aspect of high levels of red meat consumption that virtually all of us would consider undesirable. Researchers looked at 46,461 male health professionals without diverticular disease at baseline. The large cohort was drawn from those enrolled in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (1986-2012).The men completed dietary questionnaires every four years during this time frame, which saw the onset of 764 cases of diverticulitis.

Compared with men in the lowest 25% of red meat intake—just 1.2 servings per week—those in the highest quintile—consuming some 13.5 servings of red meat weekly—had a nearly 60% increased risk for diverticulitis. In particular, risk increased 18% with each daily serving of red meat.

The association was stronger for unprocessed red meat than for processed red meat. Higher consumption of poultry or fish was not associated with risk of diverticulitis. In fact, when a substitution of poultry or fish was made for just one serving of red meat per day, diverticulitis risk was reduced by 20%.

The study authors suspect chronic, low-grade systemic inflammation, exacerbated by high levels of unprocessed red meat consumption, could be one cause of the increased risk. (Of course, processed red meat has its own drawbacks, including high nitrate and sodium levels thought to increase cancer and hypertension risk.)

While the study makes a renewed case for limiting red meat consumption, increasing fiber consumption is one known preventive measure for diverticular disease. This step, combined with substituting more servings of red meat with poultry or fish, could help stave off the disorder even if red meat, which is particularly rich in iron, is not entirely phased out of one’s diet. For an overview of present governmental recommendations on fish consumption, see “In U.S., Fish Widely Eaten is Largely Safe,” in this issue.

Gut, published online Jan. 9, 2017, http://gut.bmj.com/content/early/2017/01/03/gutjnl-2016-313082

The Mayo Clinic, Diseases and Conditions: Diverticulitis, http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/diverticulitis/basics/definition/con-20033495

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