Karen loves a good hamburger cooked on the grill, but a few years ago, she quit eating red meat. “I thought it was the right thing to do for my health,” she said. “But I’m not ready to become a vegan, so I added a few more deli meats and turkey hot dogs to my diet.” Now, she wonders if she made the right decision.
Red meat — beef, lamb and pork — is a staple of the traditional American diet. It’s high in saturated fat and has been linked to high serum cholesterol and an increased risk of heart disease. That’s why many Americans have quit eating red meat.
There is an overlap between red meat and processed meats — bacon, sausage, hot dogs, pepperoni, prosciutto, salami and other cold cuts. But in recent years, products such as chicken sausages and turkey hot dogs have appeared on the grocery shelves. Are they a healthier choice than red meat? Recent studies suggest that they may not be.
In the past, red meat and processed meat were lumped together in studies regarding their effect on cardiovascular disease and diabetes. In an article published in Circulation [May 2010], these two types of meats were separated. And the results were surprising.
Persons eating just 50 grams a day of processed meat had a 42 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of Type 2 diabetes. Subjects eating twice that much of unprocessed red meat had no increased risk of heart disease or diabetes.
Results of the European EPIC study published in BMC Medicine [March 17, 2013] confirmed the above findings. Data from 448,000 Europeans from 10 countries followed for 12 years showed that persons eating the most processed meats had a 43 percent higher risk of cancer death and a 70 percent increased risk of heart-related death.
The study found a positive association between red meat consumption and the risk of death from cancer or heart disease, but it was not statistically significant, and it was lower than the risk associated with processed meats.
With the exception of deli meats, processed meats tend to have more fat. But the biggest difference probably is what is added during the processing.
Processed meats are high in sodium, which causes blood pressure to rise. And there are other additives such as smoke, nitrates and nitrites that are believed to be carcinogenic, or precursors to carcinogenic processes.
Authors of the EPIC study concluded that 3.3 percent of deaths could be prevented if persons ate smaller quantities of processed meats — 20 grams or less daily, the equivalent of one slice of bacon or less than half a hot dog.
All of these studies were prospective, and results are skewed somewhat by the fact that persons who consume large quantities of smoked meat also tend to smoke — a major risk factor for virtually any disease.
As for Karen, no one is suggesting that she should go back to eating all the red meat she wants. Compared to white meat (fish, chicken, turkey), it has considerably more cholesterol and fat, as well as heme iron, another risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Small quantities of red meat are actually desirable for the protein, iron, zinc, vitamins A and B and essential fatty acids meat provides. Nutritionists recommend about 50 to 100 grams (2 to 4 ounces) a day. One study found that subjects eating that amount had a lower risk of death from any cause than subjects eating a vegetarian diet.
The red meat limit is several times higher than for processed meats. Have a slice of bacon for breakfast and you’ve reached your limit.
Part of the problem is processed food in general. Many Americans have replaced old-fashioned cooking with packaged food that can be slipped into the oven or microwave. These foods are loaded with enough fat, salt, sugar and additives to be considered dangerous.
Processed foods are the primary source of sodium in our diets, and too much salt raises the risk of high blood pressure, vascular disease and stomach cancer. These foods also raise the risk of weight gain and the metabolic syndrome, a precursor of type 2 diabetes.
Who isn’t tempted by the smell and flavor of bacon cooking in the morning? Apparently, you should try not to succumb to the temptation too frequently if you want to live a long and healthy life.
Rupp is a certified information and referral specialist on aging for NODA Area Agency on Aging. Contact her at 237-2236.