January 24, 2017

Attention, Meat-Eaters

As meat consumption goes up, so does the risk of diverticulitis. A coincidence? Or a connection?

One of the most frustrating things about a painful episode of diverticulitis is that doctors have little advice to offer on how to prevent another attack. Luckily, that has now changed.

A new study has found a connection between eating too many steaks and burgers and a predisposition to a first case of diverticulitis. There's no guarantee, but cutting down on red meat may also help stop it from coming back for an encore.

There was a protective effect from substituting fish or poultry for unprocessed red meat. Doing so for one serving a day resulted in a 20% drop in the risk of diverticulitis.

The study — of more than 46,000 male health professionals — spanned 26 years. Those men who ate the most red meat were 58% more likely to develop diverticulitis than the men who ate the least — about one serving a week.

Diverticulitis occurs when pouches or pockets form in the intestine and become inflamed, causing pain. In more severe cases, nausea, fever, vomiting and constipation or diarrhea can occur. Most cases can be treated at home, but some require hospitalization.

At-home treatment may include antibiotics, a temporary switch to a liquid diet and a pain reliever such as acetaminophen.

It's not known what causes diverticulitis, so information on preventing it is also sketchy. Obesity, aging, lack of exercise and taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatories — NSAIDs — all increase the risk of developing diverticulitis. Low dietary fiber is also thought to increase the risk, though this association is much less clear than the other possibilities.

The men were followed from 1986 to 2012. Every four years, they updated their information, including their dietary record of meat, fish and poultry consumption.

Analysis showed that every additional daily serving of red meat the men ate increased their risk of developing diverticulitis by 18%, with the risk maxing out at six servings per week.

The increased diverticulitis risk remained even after adjusting for factors such as exercise, age, smoking and NSAID use. This increase was larger for unprocessed red meat — steaks, burgers, roasts, chops — than for processed red meat such as cold cuts and sausage.

The good news is that there was a protective effect from substituting fish or poultry for unprocessed red meat. Doing so for one serving a day resulted in a 20% drop in the risk of diverticulitis.

This was an observational study, so it's not possible to say that red meat actually was the cause of higher diverticulitis risk. And the study did not look at women. Nevertheless, it offers what the researchers call “practical dietary guidance” for those at risk of diverticulitis. For people who have had diverticulitis and are worried about it coming back, it offers a plan — cutting back on the amount of red meat in their diet.

With study after study echoing the message that a diet heavy in meat, whether processed or unprocessed, is highly unhealthy, what is there to lose?

The study appears in the journal Gut and is freely available.

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