By Megan Cole and Claire Karlsson, National Center for Health Research
You have probably heard it many times already: don’t eat too much red meat or processed foods. But research shows processed red meats, like bacon, hot dogs, and salami are the biggest problem. Here’s why.
Red meats vs. Processed red meats
In October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer of the World Health Organization concluded that processed meats cause cancer. Based upon a review of over 800 studies, 22 scientists from ten countries determined that processed meats can cause colorectal cancer and probably stomach cancer.1 Although people who eat more red meat are more likely to develop pancreatic and prostate cancer, nobody knows whether people who eat more red meat tend to have other poor health habits that are the real causes of these cancers, rather than the red meat itself.
Bacon, hot dogs, bologna, and other processed meats are now blamed for causing cancer, and they also increase your chances of developing heart disease and diabetes. A 2010 study led by Dr. Renata Micha from the Harvard School of Public Health analyzed 20 previous studies and concluded that while eating more red meat didn’t predict whether a person developed heart disease or diabetes, eating processed meat did. 2 A person who ate one portion (about one hot dog or two slices of deli meat) of processed meat every day was 42% more likely to develop coronary heart disease and 19% more likely to develop diabetes than if that person did not eat processed meat every day. That risk was the same if the person ate 2 portions of processed meat every day instead of one, and doubled if the person ate 2 portions a day instead of none. In other words, even if you like the taste or convenience of processed meat, eating less processed meat is always better for your health than eating more.
Why the difference?
When comparing red meats with processed meats, there are some key nutritional differences. While levels of saturated fats and cholesterol are usually similar in processed and unprocessed meats, processed meats generally have four times the amount of sodium and 50% more preservatives than red meats.3 Researchers suggest that these increased levels of sodium and preservatives may explain the increase in health risk. To determine if that is true, further research is needed. What is known, however, is that sodium increases blood pressure and preservatives have been shown to reduce tolerance to sugars. High blood pressure contributes to heart disease and reduced tolerance to sugars increases the risk of diabetes. Other studies have found that processed meats that have been cured, smoked and barbequed at high temperatures are more likely to cause colon cancer than other red meats.4 Cured meats like salami may pose particular risks for cancers because the nitrate and nitrite salts used in the curing process can promote cancer cell growth. Yet much more research is needed to clarify how processed meats can lead to cancer.
…but don’t pick up that steak so fast.
Does this mean that you are now free to eat all the red meat you want as long as it isn’t processed? Well, no. Studies have shown that red meat raises the level of “bad cholesterol,” because it is high in saturated fat. Chicken and fish are much lower in saturated fat. And there is some evidence that eating other red meat increases the risk of developing various cancers. Plus, eating less red meat may help reduce climate change, because cows emitsharmful greenhouse gases.5 Additionally, a study of 150,000 women, published in a major medical journal in 2016, found that eating red meat for protein instead of eating plants increases the chances of developing heart disease and dying at a younger age.6
What meats should I eat and what meats should I avoid?
As outlined by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), consider the following when selecting meats for you or your family:
• Choose lean or low-fat meat and poultry. Avoid ground beef that is less than 80% lean (the leaner, the better), and choose skinless chicken.
• If you do buy processed meats, be sure to read the ingredients and Nutrition Facts label to avoid foods high in salt. Look for products labeled “low sodium,” “reduced sodium,” or “no salt added.” To be considered “healthy,” products must not have more than 600 mg of sodium per serving.
• Consider eating fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, trout, and herring, or getting protein from other non-meat sources, such as beans, legumes, almonds, sunflower seeds, and egg whites.7
Is ALL processed meat worse than red meat?
All processed meats are not necessarily worse than all other red meats, as the “healthiness” of a meat depends upon the number of calories per serving as well as its sodium and fat content. For instance, lean deli meat may be healthier than a fatty unprocessed hamburger or steak. However, in general, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pastrami, and many other processed meats are fattier, saltier, higher in calories, and contain more additives than unprocessed red meats such as beef, pork, and lamb. Lean and low-sodium varieties of processed meat are less unhealthy, but still not as healthy as most non-processed meats.
The bottom line
Foods that are higher in calories, saturated fat, and sodium tend to increase weight, fat, and blood pressure, which in turn, may lead to the development of heart disease and/or diabetes. So? Eat a balanced diet with plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins. Enjoy red meat in moderation and remember: if you have to choose between a hot dog or a hamburger, the unprocessed meat of the hamburger is the safer bet when it comes to avoiding cancer, coronary heart disease and diabetes. (But also remember that the salt, ketchup, and pickles you add to that burger can make it even saltier than a hot dog).
All articles on our website have been approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
This article was updated in 2016.
- Bouvard, Véronique; Loomis, Dana; Guyton, Kathryn Z; Grosse, Yann; El Ghissassi, Fatiha; Benbrahim-Tallaa, Lamia; Guha, Neela; Mattock, Heidi; Straif, Kurt. (October 2015). “Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat”. The Lancet. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(15)00444-1. ▲
- Micha, R., Wallace, S.K., Mozaffarian, D. (June 2010).“Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis”. Circulation. 121(21): 2271–2283. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.109.924977 ▲
- Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, Leitzmann MF, & Schatzkin A (2009 March 23) Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study over half a million people. Archives of Internal Medicine 169(6):562-571 ▲
- Santarelli, R.L., Pierre, F., Corpet, D.E., (2008). “Processed meat and colorectal cancer: a review of epidemiologic and experimental evidence”. Nutrition and Cancer. 60(2):131-44. doi: 10.1080/01635580701684872 ▲
- Powell R (2008) Eat less meat to help the environment, UN climate expert says. Telegraph. ▲
- Song M, Fung TT, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine; 2016. ▲
- United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2010). Inside the Pyramid (Meat). ▲