When it comes to eating meat, many studies have focused on the fat content and its effects on the cardiovascular system, increasing the risk of heart disease and diabetes. A new study from Harvard University breaks it down further and finds that processed meat is more harmful to health than regular cuts of red meat, despite having similar fat contents.
The team, led by Renata Micha, a research fellow in the department of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health, reviewed 20 studies involving more than one million participants from 10 countries.
On average, for each 50 gram serving of processed meat, or 1.8 ounces, per day there was an associated 42% higher chance of developing coronary heart disease and a 19% higher risk of diabetes. This equates to one hot dog or one sausage patty, or two slices of deli meat. Those who ate one serving or less per week had the lowest risk.
There was not an associated risk with unprocessed red meats, including beef, lamb, and pork, even though fat content, saturated fat, and cholesterol were about the same.
The authors suggest the difference is the salt and preservatives added to the processed meat, which includes any product made by smoking, curing, or salting such as bacon, sausage, salami, hot dogs, and luncheon meats.
Salt is known to increase blood pressure, which is a key factor for heart disease, and processed meats contain about four times more sodium than unprocessed meats. The nitrate preservatives have been shown in animal experiments to promote atherosclerosis and reduce glucose tolerance.
"To lower risk of heart attacks and diabetes, people should consider which types of meats they are eating," said Micha. This includes choosing fresh, unprocessed and lean cuts of meat that can be prepared without added sodium.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute offers these spice suggestions for adding flavor to meat products without using salt:
Beef Bay leaf, marjoram, nutmeg, onion, pepper, sage, thyme
Lamb Curry powder, garlic, rosemary, mint
Pork Garlic, onion, sage, pepper, oregano
Veal Bay leaf, curry powder, ginger, marjoram, oregano
Chicken Ginger, marjoram, oregano, paprika, poultry seasoning, rosemary, sage, tarragon, thyme
Fish Curry powder, dill, dry mustard, lemon juice, marjoram, paprika, pepper
"Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis."
Renata Micha, Sarah K. Wallace, and Dariush Mozaffarian. Circulation, May 2010. DOI:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.924977