A diet with a moderate amount of processed meat — sausage, bacon, cold cuts, jerky and other preserved or semi-preserved forms of meat — is linked to a higher risk of both cardiovascular disease and death, according to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Researchers looked at a group of 134,297 people from 21 different countries — covering a range of low-, middle- and high-income countries — to look for links between consumption of different kinds of meat and health outcomes. Unprocessed red meat, unprocessed poultry and processed meat intake was categorized separately based on detailed dietary questionnaires, and health outcomes were tracked during a follow-up period of 9.5 years.
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Processed meat linked to higher death risk
Overall, there were 7,789 deaths and 6,976 cardiovascular events (like a stroke or heart attack) during the follow-up period. The researchers found that a higher intake of unprocessed red meat — at least 250 grams (0.55 pounds) per week, compared with a low intake of less than 50 grams per week — was not significantly linked to the risk of death or cardiovascular events. Similarly, poultry intake had no significant effect on these outcomes. But processed meat was an entirely different story. A higher intake of processed meat — at least 150 grams (0.33 pounds) per week, compared with none at all — was linked to a 51% higher risk of death from all causes. The risk of cardiovascular events was 46% higher among people who consumed this level of processed meat.
While the study classified 150 grams or more of processed meat weekly as a “higher” intake, that’s not actually very much meat, as noted in a HealthDay article on the study. A typical sausage weighs about 75 grams, so the increased risk of death found in the study could be expected based on consuming two sausages per week.
One potential flaw of this study, as noted in a news release from the American Society for Nutrition, is that dietary surveys didn’t look specifically at what people with a lower intake of processed meat ate instead. It’s possible that a higher intake of some beneficial foods — like fruits and vegetables, or beans and other legumes — could account for some of the health benefits linked to not eating processed meat. But given that consuming a fairly small amount of processed meat accounted for a significant increase in the risk for death and cardiovascular disease, it’s unlikely that substitution of healthier foods alone could account for the differences observed.
The good news, of course, is that consuming moderate amount of unprocessed red meat and poultry didn’t appear to have any harmful health effects. So instead of grilling sausages for your next gathering, burgers or chicken might be a better choice.
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