Could Going Vegetarian Lower Kids' Asthma Risk?
Compounds in meat may trigger wheezing in some children that can potentially lead to asthma or other respiratory conditions, a new study suggests.
These compounds, called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), are released as meat is cooked at high temperatures while grilling, frying or roasting. AGEs attach themselves to cells in the lungs, causing inflammation and an immune system response that can cause wheezing, the study authors explained.
"Childhood wheeze is often the first manifestation of airway disease, most notably asthma," said lead researcher Dr. Jing Gennie Wang, a pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine doctor at Ohio State University in Columbus.
"Our study suggests that a diet high in non-seafood meat intake may potentially be detrimental to airways and lung health in children," she added.
Still, the study can't prove that eating meat causes wheezing and its potential consequences, only that an association appears to exist, Wang noted.
"This association is true for processed meats like sausages and salami, red meats like beef and pork, and poultry," she added. "But not for seafood like fish and shellfish."
However, it's premature to make recommendations for dietary changes until further research is done, she said.
"Our study adds to a growing body of literature suggesting that more frequent consumption of meats and associated pro-inflammatory compounds might have detrimental effects on the lungs," Wang said.
For the study, Wang's team looked at the effect of AGEs among nearly 4,400 U.S. children (aged 2 to 17) who took part in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from 2003 to 2006. Specifically, the researchers used the Food Frequency Questionnaire to calculate how much AGE was consumed and also looked at reports of respiratory symptoms.
Among the children, 13% had experienced wheezing over the past year.
After taking into account factors such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, household income and weight, higher consumption of AGEs was associated with an 18% increase in the odds of wheezing, the researchers found.
Higher AGE consumption was also associated with a 26% increase in odds of disturbed sleep due to wheezing, a 34% increase in wheezing during exercise and a 35% greater need for medication to treat wheezing.
The report was published online Dec. 21 in the journal Thorax.
One expert thinks it's possible eating meat can harm the lungs.
"It's certainly plausible this could be involved in the development of asthma, but there's a long way to say then that this association is causal. But there is sort of a biological plausibility signal, which I always look for," said Dr. Jonathan Grigg, a professor of pediatric respiratory and environmental medicine at Queen Mary University of London, in the United Kingdom.
Grigg, who wrote an editorial that accompanied the study, noted that many other factors can influence the development of asthma and other respiratory conditions.
"There are a lot of other factors in those families that may be linked to other environmental factors, so sometimes it is a signal for some other complex," Grigg said. "As far as we can go is to say, well, this is interesting. But it's by no means something that anyone can act on at the moment and say we have to reduce our meat consumption to prevent asthma. That absolutely is not the case."
Despite these doubts, there are other good reasons to limit the amount of meat that adults and children eat, he said.
"There is a wider agenda, which is I think worthy of reminding us that consumption of red meats at the current level may be environmentally unsustainable," Grigg said. "It may just remind us that we do have to reduce red meat consumption. I think, total consumption could be reduced without any detrimental effects on population health."
For more on asthma, head to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
SOURCES: Jing Gennie Wang, MD, pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine, Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, Columbus; Jonathan Grigg, MD, professor, pediatric respiratory and environmental medicine, Queen Mary University of London, U.K.; Thorax, Dec. 21, 2020, online