Study: Processed Meat Linked to Premature Death

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The healthiest people eat a moderate amount of red meat and poultry, but as little processed meat as possible.

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Laszlo Balogh/Reuters

Vegetarians have healthier hearts, while those with diets high in processed meat -- regardless of whether or not it contains horse -- are at a significantly increased risk of death due to cardiovascular disease, and to a lesser extent, cancer.

For half a million people throughout ten European countries, a study in BMC Medicine found, consuming processed meat went along with other unhealthful lifestyle choices, such as eating few fruits and vegetables, being more likely to smoke and, for men, consuming large quantities of alcohol.

But because this sample size was so large, the researchers were able to isolate meat consumption from these other factors. When they did so, they found the association between processed meat and premature death became even stronger. They estimated that if people reduced their daily meat consumption to under 20 grams -- cutting sausage down to a matchbook-sized portion -- about 3 percent of premature deaths in a given year could be prevented.

That's 20 grams or fewer of bacon, sausage, hot dogs, sandwich meat, and basically any meat "product." Poultry and rabbit weren't found to be a problem.

Eating little or no red meat, like beef and pork, was actually associated with higher all-cause mortality than very moderate consumption, presumably because red meat does contain important vitamins and nutrients (protein, iron, zinc, vitamins A and B, essential fatty acids). This range, the authors also believe, most accurately reflects people who attempt to optimize their diet, whereas vegetarian diets may be poorly balanced. High consumption of red meat was associated with significantly increased mortality only before they controlled for lifestyle factors. 

The moral appears to be moderation -- moderation in the sense that meat would have to take the form of a small side dish rather than the centerpiece of a meal, but moderation nonetheless. That, and as always, vegetables.



The full study, "Meat consumption and mortality -- results from the European prospective investigation into cancer and nutrition," is published in the journal BMC Medicine.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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