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Eating processed meat leads to heart disease and death, study finds

Eating lots of red and processed meat is often considered a macho thing among men. Competitions, bragging rights, endless buffets and getting “your money’s worth” lead men to consume extravagant amounts of meat. However, a study published online June 12, 2014 in Circulation: Heart Failure, a journal of the American Heart Association, suggests this practice is leading to more heart failure and death among men.

Routinely eating processed meat can increase the risk of heart disease and death.
Photo by David Silverman/Getty Images

A growing body of evidence is mounting that processed meats — meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives — are vastly harmful to human health. Examples of processed meats include deli meats, sausage, bacon and hot dogs.

Previous studies have linked routinely eating processed meats to an increased risk of some cancers, heart disease and diabetes. Those who eat a lot of processed meat are also less likely to eat the most valuable and nutrient dense foods, like fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Heart disease takes the lives of about 600,000 Americans annually, and is the leading cause of death among both men and women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that coronary heart disease — the most common type of heart disease — costs the United States $108.9 billion every year in health care services, medications and lost productivity.

Lead author of the study and professor in the division of Nutritional Epidemiology at the Institute of Medicine, Karolinska Institute in Stockholm Sweden, Alicja Wolk, DMSc, and her colleagues examined the effect of processed and unprocessed meat on heart disease. The 12-year Cohort of Swedish Men study included more than 37,000 men aged 45 to 79 with no history of heart failure, ischemic heart disease and cancer. Participants’ lifestyle factors and eating behaviors were tracked via questionnaire, and each participant was tracked until heart disease diagnosis, death or the completion of the study in 2010.

Remarkably, the researchers concluded that men who consume approximately 2.6 ounces or more of processed meat daily had a 28 percent higher risk of heart failure when compared to those who ate less than one ounce per day on average, even after adjusting for various lifestyle factors. Moreover, the highest consumers of processed meat — 2.6 ounces or more daily — experienced a two-fold increase in their risk of death from heart failure compared to lower consumers.

The researchers also found that for every 50 gram increase in daily consumption of processed meat, the risk of heart failure increased eight percent and risk of death from heart failure by 38 percent. To put this in perspective this is equivalent to eating just under two slices of deli meat per day.

These conclusions confirm findings of previous studies that processed meat is harmful to the cardiovascular system and increases risk of mortality from heart disease. The researchers are currently investigating whether the same conclusion will be observed in women who eat processed meat.

To limit this risk, it is best to eat reasonably-portioned servings of unprocessed meats, and limit processed meat consumption to only one serving per week. In addition, it is important to aim for 5 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables — particularly vegetables — daily.