After analyzing the diets of nearly 500,000 Europeans from 10 different countries, researchers have found compelling links between eating processed meats, like bacon, hot dogs, salami and bologna, and increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease. However, the connections weren’t as strong with those who regularly consumed poultry or unprocessed red meat.
Processed meats are notoriously high in unhealthy unsaturated fat and cholesterol, which clogs your arteries and expands your waistline — putting you at greater risk of heart disease. Nitrates, chemical additives that help preserve the meat, have been linked to stomach cancer and other degenerative diseases, like dementia.
The American Heart Association has targeted processed meats in their Salty Six campaign to lower Americans’ notoriously high sodium consumption. Consuming too much sodium from processed meats can raise your blood pressure, which makes your heart work harder than it needs to. This can damage the heart and lead to heart failure or increase your risk for a stroke.
In the study, the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) investigated the connections between eating different types of meat and early death from various causes. Starting in the early 1990s, they followed the eating habits of those in places like France, England, Italy and Spain. Those who regularly ate processed meat were at greater risk of dying from heart disease or cancer.
The researchers, however, also noticed that those in the studies who ate processed meats, like sausages or salami, tended to eat fewer fruits and vegetables, and were also more likely to smoke and drink and less likely to exercise. While analyzing the data, the researchers tried to account for these differences in lifestyle, but they may not have been able to do so completely. However, this study, published in BMC Medicine, merely complements numerous other studies that have also connected processed meats with higher rates of heart disease and cancer.
To protect yourself and your family, try ditching preserved and processed meats altogether. Buy meats low in saturated fats such as chicken and turkey, or eat more fish, like salmon, rich in healthy omega-3 fats. However, if you must chow down on the bacon or salami, try looking for ones that are labeled as “nitrate-free.”
Also, moderation is key. The study noticed that 3.3% of the 26,000 deaths they observed during the study could have been prevented if the participants ate less than 20 grams of processed meat per day total — equivalent to a thin strip of bacon.