- A large study conducted for almost 10 years finds that eating even small amounts of processed meat, like sausages, can significantly increase the risk of heart disease and death.
- Experts say the high salt, preservative, and fat content of these foods might be why. They encourage people to eat a more plant-based diet while avoiding saturated fat.
- Experts recommend eating all foods, including processed meat, in moderation.
Researchers from McMaster University and Hamilton Health Sciences in Canada have found that eating as little as 6 ounces of processed meat per week could significantly increase the risk of heart disease and death.
Meat is considered processed if it’s been preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or adding preservatives.
That’s the equivalent of eating just two sausages — in a week.
“We found consumption of 150 grams [just over 5 ounces] or more of processed meat per week was associated with a 46 percent higher chance of cardiovascular disease and 51 percent higher chance of death compared with those who did not consume processed meat,” co-author Mahshid Dehghan, PhD, investigator of global health at the David Braley Cardiac, Vascular, and Stroke Research Institute, told Healthline.
The new studyTrusted Source was recently published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Dehghan and team analyzed the diets and health outcomes of 134,297 people from 21 countries. Researchers tracked their meat consumption and rates of cardiovascular disease.
After following study participants for almost 10 years, the researchers found that eating 150 grams (just over 5 ounces) or more of processed meat a week was associated with an almost 50 percent increased risk of cardiovascular disease and more than 50 percent higher risk of death from all causes than those who ate no processed meat.
“The main limitation [of this study] was that we were unable to include method of cooking for each country,” Dehghan said. “We acknowledge that this limitation might attenuate the association between unprocessed red meat and poultry and health outcomes.”
Surprisingly, researchers discovered that eating moderate levels of unprocessed meat, like beef, pork, or poultry, had a neutral effect on health.
“Observational studies can help determine links and associations but cannot determine causation,” said Lisa K. Diewald, MS, RD, LDN, program manager at the MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at Villanova University College of Nursing.
She explained that an observational study that addresses diet and health risk, like this one, typically rely on food frequency questionnaires (FFQ), which may be prone to errors from participants over- or underestimating their consumption.
“However, the large sample size in this study is helpful in mitigating this risk,” Diewald said. “In addition to the large sample size, the study’s staff was well-trained staff in the use of the FFQ, so the results may be looked on as more reliable.”
Dehghan said the harmful effects of processed meat on health might not be entirely due to its saturated fat or cholesterol content since the amounts of these nutrients are similar in processed and unprocessed meats.
She also pointed out that the amounts of preservative and food additives in processed and unprocessed meats can differ markedly, which may partly explain the different effects on health that the study found.
“So, we are aware that eating high content of processed meat is bad for your health,” said Dr. Johanna Contreras, director of heart failure at Mount Sinai Morningside in New York. “They have high concentration of salt, which increase blood pressure, weight, and heart disease.”
She added it’s well knownTrusted Source that artificial preservatives are toxic for the human body, and some processed meats are high in saturated fat and salt, “which are also bad for cardiac function and that will increase cardiovascular mortality.”
“It is tempting to conclude that meat substitutes or meat analogs provide a tasty and healthy alternative to those seeking the taste of meat without the added health risks,” Diewald said. “These products include meat-flavored crumbles, vegetarian hot dogs, ground beef alternatives, and a plethora of convenience foods in vegan form.”
She emphasized that while consumers may perceive these foods to be healthier than their meat-based counterparts, this may not always represent reality.
“Not all these meat substitutes are healthy, and consumers may be trading one problem for another,” she said.
According to Diewald, these food items are often another form of processed food, meaning they may still contain excessive amounts of salt, sugar, artificial colors, and other ingredients used in any heavily processed food.
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans,” and found strong evidence that eating processed meat is associated with cancers in the colon, pancreas, and prostate.
Previous researchTrusted Source has also shown that processed and red meat is associated with cardiovascular disease.
But does this mean we should completely remove meat from our diet?
“I believe small amounts or in moderation could be considered,” Contreras said.
She added that it’s preferable to eat lean meat and unprocessed food, in as natural a state as possible, since it’s more nutritious and healthier that way.
“My best recommendations is to avoid processed food in general and try to use more natural, organic food: vegetables, fruits, and unsaturated fat with low salt content,” Diewald said.
She added that while one observational study doesn’t usually find conclusive evidence of an increase in heart disease risk, “this study clearly builds on, and expands upon, the current body of evidence” that indicates an association between eating processed meat and increased heart disease risk.
“It also distinguished between unprocessed and processed meats in determining impact on heart disease risk,” she concluded. “This information is useful for consumers in making healthier food selections.”
A large study conducted for almost 10 years finds that eating even small amounts of processed meats, like sausages, can significantly increase the risk of heart disease and death.
Experts say the high salt, preservative, and fat content of these foods might be why. They encourage people to eat a more plant-based diet while avoiding saturated fat.
Experts also emphasize that while one observational study isn’t ordinarily considered conclusive evidence, this new research builds on previous studies also finding an association between processed meat and heart disease.