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How much bacon is too much?

Researchers: Processed meat consumption increases risk of cancer, cardiac problems

Topics: Behavioral Health, Service Lines, Oncology

March 08, 2013

Individuals who eat more than 20 grams of processed meat a day—the equivalent of one thin strip of bacon or slice of ham—are more likely to die of stroke, cancer, or a myocardial infarction, according to a new study in BMC Medicine.

For the study, University of Zurich researchers analyzed data on 448,568 meat-eating residents in 10 European countries and found that those consuming the most processed meats—such as bacon, salami, and sausages—were 44% more likely to die prematurely for any reason than those who ate little of the meats.

Specifically, the researchers found that the "high meat" consumers were:

  • 72% more likely to die from heart disease; and
  • 11% more likely to die of cancer.

Lead author Sabine Rohrmann attributes the increased mortality risk to the salt, smoke, and nitrates that make preserved meats so tasty. Such meats also have high amounts of unhealthy fats; some sausages are 50% fat.

However, Rohrmann says eating processed meats alone is not going to increase one's risk of mortality and that other lifestyle choices play a part, too. For example, the processed meat consumers in the study also tended to eat fewer fruits and vegetables, and were more likely to smoke, drink, and not exercise.

"My recommendation is to limit meat intake, in particular processed meat intake," Rohrmann told NPR's "The Salt," adding that "we know that meat is rich in some vitamins and minerals and, thus, my recommendation is to limit the [total] amount of meat to about 300 to 600 grams a week."

The problems begin when meat consumption is not consumed in moderation, the study concluded. "I'd say it's fine to eat bacon and sausages, but not in high amounts and not every day," Rohrmann says (Shute, "The Salt," NPR, 3/6; Campbell, The Guardian, 3/6; MacVean, "Booster Shots," Los Angeles Times, 3/7).

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