Don’t go bacon your heart – processed meat linked to early death

A cartoon X made of bacon

Eating processed meat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and early death, but moderate ‘unprocessed’ meat consumption is not, according to a new study.

Published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the global study of 134,297 people adds to the growing body of evidence that processed meat consumption increases health risks.

Processed meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or chemical preservatives. It includes bacon, ham, salami, corned beef, smoked beef and chicken, frankfurters, and sausages containing preservatives.

The study shows consumption of 150g or more of processed meat a week was associated with a 46 per cent higher risk of cardiovascular disease and a 51 per cent higher risk of early death, compared with those who ate no processed meat.

Less risk with red meat and poultry

But, according to first author Romaina Iqbal, eating moderate amounts of ‘unprocessed’ meat and poultry does not have the same link to higher cardiovascular disease risk and early death.

“Evidence of an association between meat intake and cardiovascular disease is inconsistent. We, therefore, wanted to better understand the associations between intakes of unprocessed red meat, poultry, and processed meat with major cardiovascular disease events and mortality,” Dr Iqbal says.

According to second author Mahshid Dahghan, the data show ‘consuming a modest amount of unprocessed meat as part of a healthy dietary pattern is unlikely to be harmful’.

Study method

From 2003, the researchers recorded participants’ dietary habits, using food frequency questionnaires, and collected data on their mortality and cardiovascular disease events.

A limitation of the research is that it’s unclear what participants with lower meat intakes were eating in place of meat, and further investigation is warranted.

However, the researchers recommend limiting processed meat consumption.

Processed meat and cancer

There is existing evidence processed meat consumption is strongly associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer and, because of this, experts already recommend keeping processed meat as very occasional treat, if consumed at all.

University of Otago nutrition researcher Cristina Cleghorn has previously told Healthy Food Guide: “There is strong evidence that reducing consumption of processed meat will reduce the risk of colorectal cancer at a population level.”

As for ‘unprocessed’ red meat, the Cancer Council recommends limiting consumption to three or four times a week, and no more than 700g raw weight in total.

This will provide the benefits of important nutrients, such as zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fats, while not significantly increasing cancer risk.

First published: Apr 2021

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