Bad News, Bacon Fans: Processed Meats Pose Major Health Risks

Even one daily deli sandwich could dramatically up your risk for heart disease and diabetes

Over the weekend, my best friend Bridget sent me one of those emails where the last person to forward it fills out a “20 questions about myself” form. In the questionnaire are things you’d never think to ask, like, “Do you still have your tonsils?” I’m not a big fan of these emails. But when I came across the question, “What’s your favorite kind of meat?” I felt compelled to reply. It’s not that I was dying to tell everyone in my address book that I secretly like veal. It was Bridget’s confession -- “I love cured meats!” -- that made me respond.

Earlier that day, I’d read about a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health that found eating processed meat like bacon, sausage and deli meats is associated with a huge risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. According to a study published in the journal Circulation that tracked people for an average of 11 years, people who ate 50 grams of processed meat daily (that’s about 1-2 slices of lunch meat or a single hot dog) increased their risk for heart disease by 42 percent, while their risk for diabetes climbed by 19 percent. Yikes. Kind of makes you cringe for Jared’s – and all those other Subway diet followers’ -- arteries, doesn’t it?

The researchers looked at 20 studies, which included more than 1.2 million people in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Asia, who were followed for up to 18 years. There's one surprising silver lining for meat lovers: Researchers found that eating unprocessed red meat (like, say, steak and pork chops) was not associated with a greater risk of heart disease or diabetes.

How is that possible when almost every heart-healthy diet badmouths any beef or pork variety? Quite simply, most studies examining the effects of red meat on our health have lumped processed and unprocessed meats together. While more research is needed, this study suggests that red meat may not be a health villain after all--or, at least, not as big a villain as we might have thought. According to lead author Renata Micha, R.D., Ph.D., research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, while processed and unprocessed red meats contain similar amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol (both of which have been linked to heart disease), processed meat contains four times more sodium and 50 percent more nitrate preservatives. "This suggests that differences in salt and preservatives, rather than fats, might explain the higher risk of heart disease and diabetes seen with processed meats,” she says.

For the study, processed meat was defined as any beef, lamb or pork preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or the adding of chemical preservatives. Since they didn’t study processed poultry meats, researchers don’t know if deli turkey is associated with the same risk. But given that the culprits may be the added sodium and preservatives--not the meat itself--sliced turkey may not be any better for your health. In order to get a more accurate picture of meat’s effects on our health, researchers are now questioning whether processed and unprocessed kinds should be studied separately. 

In the meantime, though, Micha says: "People should consider which types of meats they are eating. Processed meats such as bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs and processed deli meats may be the most important to avoid.” Her recommendation: Eat one serving per week or less. As for the other kinds of red meat, the Harvard School of Public Health still suggests choosing the leanest cuts and eating it only occasionally.

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