A new look at the interplay between diet and disease shows that when it comes to protecting health, avoiding processed meats may help. According to a review published in Circulation, one serving per day ups the odds of developing diabetes by 19% and heart disease by 42%.
The popular message to eat less red meat for heart disease and diabetes prevention hasn’t been consistently backed by the research, and not all of the studies have looked at the types of meat that people were eating. So, what if some of the perceived risk actually stems from the way the meats are prepared, rather than the meat itself?
A team of researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed 20 different studies, looking for clues about the connection between red and processed meat consumption and the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.
For the purposes of the review, red meat was defined as unprocessed meat from beef, hamburgers, lamb, pork, and game.
One serving of red meat was 100 grams (about 3.5 ounces).
Processed meats included any meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives, such as bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs, and processed deli meats, including some poultry.
One serving of processed meat was 50 grams (about 1.8 ounces).
The review showed that eating red meat didn’t raise the risk of heart disease or diabetes, but eating processed meat did. Just one daily serving of processed meat increased the risk of heart disease by nearly 1.5 times. Similarly, eating two slices of bacon each day increased the risk of diabetes by almost two times. Few studies looked at the link between meat consumption and stroke risk, but those that did found no connection.
There were little differences in calories, protein content, and amount and types of fats between red and processed meats. The biggest difference was in the amount of sodium and non-salt preservatives, such as nitrites and nitrates. “Higher levels of [these additives] in processed meats could plausibly contribute to increased cardiovascular disease and diabetes risk,” said the researchers.
Just because this review didn’t show a connection between red meat consumption and heart disease or diabetes risk, there are plenty of other benefits to planning your diet around an assortment of veggies, whole grains, fruits, legumes, and nuts. When you do opt for some red meat, make sure it’s the real thing, without salt or chemicals.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. She cofounded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI, and now sees patients in East Greenwich and Wakefield. Inspired by her passion for healthful eating and her own young daughters, Dr. Beauchamp is currently writing a book about optimizing children’s health through better nutrition.