Eating Processed Meat Riskier Than Red Meat

Here’s some surprising information from the Harvard School of public health. It’s an old news, new news story. First a reiteration of some old news: Eating processed meat such as bacon, salami, hot dogs, or lunch meats is associated with an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes.

But, this old news becomes even more convincing since this particular report is based upon an analysis of 20 studies including more than 1.2 million adults.

However, the new news is that the increased risk of heart disease and diabetes does NOT come from eating UNPROCESSED red meat, such as steak, lamb or pork. How about that for a shocker!?

The risk comes from eating PROCESSED meats.

The researchers theorize that the higher sodium and nitrate levels in processed meats are the main reason for the increased heart and diabetes risk.

The researchers defined the term “processed meat” as meaning “any meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting or with the addition of chemical preservatives.”

They defined “red meat” as unprocessed meats such as beef, hamburger, lamb, and pork.

As most of you know, conventional wisdom has dictated that fat from red meat is a risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and a number of types of cancer.

The term “processed meat” refers to any meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting or with the addition of chemical preservatives. The researchers defined “red meat” as unprocessed meats such as beef, hamburger, lamb and pork.
“To lower risk of heart attacks and diabetes, people should avoid eating too much processed meats — for example, hot dogs, bacon, sausage or processed deli meats,” said lead researcher Renata Micha, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. “Based on our findings, eating up to one serving per week would be associated with relatively small risk.”

“To lower risk of heart attacks and diabetes, people should avoid eating too much processed meats — for example, hot dogs, bacon, sausage or processed deli meats,” lead researcher Renata Micha, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Business Week in an interview. “Based on our findings, eating up to one serving per week would be associated with relatively small risk.”

“This suggests that salt and other preservatives, rather than fats, probably explain the higher risk for heart attacks and diabetes seen with processed meats,” Micha said.

The researchers found that people who ate unprocessed red meat did not significantly increase their chances of developing heart disease or diabetes. However, eating processed meat was linked to an increased risk for the two conditions. In fact, for every 50-gram (1.8-ounce) serving, the risk for heart disease jumped 42 percent and the risk for diabetes increased 19 percent.

Samantha Heller, a registered dietitian, clinical nutritionist, and exercise physiologist interviewed by Business Week said, “Both red and processed meat and other foods, such as butter and cheese, that are high in saturated fat have been linked to chronic disease.” She added, “People should limit consumption of them as well.”

“Going low- or no-fat with dairy products helps lower our intake of saturated fat,” she said.

“Choosing healthy protein sources — such as white-meat poultry, low-mercury fish, soy, nuts and beans — and focusing on moving in the direction of a more plant-based diet will help us all live longer, healthier lives.

The findings were presented at the Nutrition, Physical Activity and Metabolism & Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention Joint Conference in San Francisco.

The caveat is that many findings presented at meetings never make it into the peer-reviewed and published medical literature. So, we’ll have to wait and see if these data and this report of published.

However, given the source (the Harvard School of Public Health), I think I’m comfortable continuing in my recommendation to patients to eat as little processed meat product as possible.

2 thoughts on “Eating Processed Meat Riskier Than Red Meat

  • Debbie

    Dear Dr. Walt,
    I just bought a super-cool smoker for my husband. Is home-smoked beef bad for us? If so, I guess we’ll be using it for fish. Sigh.

  • Hey Deb. I can’t say for sure, from reading the study, what the answer to your question is. But, the lead researchers is quoted as saying, “To lower risk of heart attacks and diabetes, people should avoid eating too much processed meats — for example, hot dogs, bacon, sausage or processed deli meats.”

    It’s interesting that she left “smoked meats” off the list of her comments, leading me to think that those she listed are potentially of a higher risk.

    But even if it would be on her list, she also says, “Based on our findings, eating up to one serving per week would be associated with relatively small risk.”

    So, enjoy your smoked beef meal once a week, and invite the Larimores over to enjoy it with you! :-)

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