Beefing up the evidence

Israeli study links well done red meat to liver disease risk

University of Haifa researchers find that those who like their meat thoroughly cooked are more likely to develop non-alcoholic fatty liver disease

Illustration: A meal with a well-done steak. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)
Illustration: A meal with a well-done steak. (Chen Leopold/Flash 90)

An Israeli study has indicated that eating processed and red meat, particularly when cooked or fried for long periods of time, is linked with chronic liver disease, heart disease, and diabetes.

The research adds to a body of evidence suggesting that people should reduce their consumption of red meat, which has been tied to cancer, heart disease and diabetes, and features unambiguous results on its connection to liver disease — where evidence had thus far been mixed.

The researchers from the University of Haifa found that people who ate more well-done meat were 47 percent more likely to develop a condition known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) and 55% more likely to have insulin resistance, regardless of saturated fat and cholesterol intake and other risk factors such as BMI, Reuters reported on Thursday.

The well-done meat was also associated with developing both diseases, which are among the traits that make up the so-called metabolic syndrome which further raises the risk of heart disease and diabetes, the report quoted the researchers as saying.

In their study, which will be published in the Journal of Hepatology in June, the Israeli team of researchers asked 789 adults about their meat consumption habits and had them undergo liver ultrasound scans and tests for insulin resistance.

Participants were typically overweight and were 59 years old on average (and between the ages of 40-70 overall), with about 15% of them suffering from diabetes, the report said.

Some 39% of the participants were found to have NAFLD, and 31% had developed insulin resistance.

Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a condition where more than 5% of the liver is made up of fat. Those levels of fat in the liver are most commonly caused by excessive alcohol drinking, but not exclusively. Insulin resistance is a condition where the body is less adept at converting sugars in the blood into energy by using the hormone insulin.

The study was conducted between 2013 and 2015 by researchers Shira Zelber-Sagi, Dana Ivancovsky-Wajcman, Naomi Fliss Isakov, Muriel Webb, Dana Orenstein, Oren Shibolet, and Revital Kariv.

Prof. Shira Zelber-Sagi. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Zelber-Sagi, who led the research, said in a statement that “NAFLD is primarily a lifestyle-oriented disease. Unhealthy Western lifestyle plays a major role in the development and progression of NAFLD.”

“With sound medical and nutritional guidance from their clinicians, patients are better informed and equipped to implement the lifestyle changes needed to help reverse this disease,” she added.

Limitations of the research include the fact that it “wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how red or processed meat might directly cause liver damage or insulin resistance,” the report said. It also relied on participants’ memory for determining how much meat they ate and how it was cooked, which isn’t always accurate.

Still, Prof. Zelber-Sagi told Reuters that people should consider “choosing fish, turkey or chicken as an animal protein source. In addition, steaming or boiling food (is better than) grilling or frying meat at a high temperature until it is very well done.”

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