Many health problems have long been associated with eating red meat (beef, lamb and pork, but not fish and poultry) and many health authorities recommend reducing consumption of red meats. A recent study suggests that for at least two of these it’s not the meat so much as the processing.
A recent meta-analysis study at the Harvard School of Public Health looked at the connection between the consumption of processed vs. unprocessed red meats and the risk of heart disease and diabetes. They found that on average, after adjusting for lifestyle factors, people who eat 1 serving a day of processed meats (bacon, sausage, hot dogs, salami etc.) had a 42% higher risk of heart attacks and a 19% higher risk of diabetes. People who ate only unprocessed red meats had no change in risk.
Two possible culprits in the processed meats are the high sodium content and the nitrate preservatives. The amount of saturated fat and cholesterol was similar for both types of meat.
Other health problems associated with red meat consumption include high blood pressure and cancer. While this study did not look at these conditions, other research has shown an association with processed meat. High sodium intake is a well established risk factor in high blood pressure.
Cooking meat at high temperatures such as grilling on the BBQ creates carcinogens in the meat and that processed meats are worse. So if you must barbecue, choose whole meats (steak rather than smokies), don’t over cook it, and carefully trim off and discard any black parts.
But however it is cooked, the American Institute for Cancer Research emphasizes on their website that “…the evidence is now overwhelming that red meat - especially processed red meats like hot dogs is a cause of colorectal cancer.” For example a 2005 study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, following 1500 patients who had a colonoscopy to remove precancerous polyps, found that those who consumed diets higher in processed meats had a higher rate of recurrence. An analysis by the World Cancer Research Fund found that eating 1 sausage or 3 pieces of bacon a day raised the risk of bowel cancer by 20%. Red meat also raised the risk but by a much smaller amount and a limit of 500g a week was recommended.
My recommendation? Eat red meat in moderation, and buy it unprocessed as steaks, roasts or even lean ground. Cook it at low temperatures – it will take longer but be well worth the wait. Processed meats should be avoided or used as a rare treat.
This article is intended for educational purposes only; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner.