Why is Processed Meat So Bad For You?
One of the most persistent recommendations health pundits make is avoiding processed meat. Even though this category of meat is so popular, it doesn’t enjoy a good reputation in terms of health. So why is processed meat so bad for you?
If you’re on a plant-based diet, you probably already avoid processed meat or any kind of meat, for that matter. Still, knowing the negatives of these processed animal proteins is important, as it puts everything in perspective.
So many people every year die of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Many such life-threatening diseases have been linked with processed meat. If you think meat is bad, then processed meat is simply another level of bad.
What is Processed Meat?
Processed meat is one that has had any kind of curing, drying, salting, or smoking done. While you get your regular meat just as it’s butchered, these meat products go through several treatments.
Here’s a list of some of the most popular processed meats:
- Dried meat
- Beef jerky
- Cured meat (Pastrami, prosciutto, mortadella, etc.)
- Corned meat
- Canned meat
5 Reasons Why Processed Meat Is Bad For You:
There are several reasons why processed meat is simply bad for your health. Most of the side effects of these products are long-term, which makes them all the more serious.
1. Carcinogenic Substances
What are carcinogens? Carcinogenic substances are any substances that cause cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies processed meat as carcinogenic. This is not something new as the link to cancer of processed meat has been known and studied for a while now.
Carcinogens don’t directly change DNA but cause cells to multiply at a faster rate. Some of these substances are naturally found in meat, while others are produced as a result of the processing treatments or even the way such products are cooked.
Here are the three groups of carcinogens processed meat may contain:
Nitrite and Nitrosamines
The most harmful carcinogens in processed meat are N-nitroso compounds, of which Nitrosamines are the most common.
These compounds come from nitrite, which becomes part of the meat during processing. It helps meat preserve its natural color, improve taste, and keep bacteria at bay. While that sounds positive, its long-term effects are far from positive.
It’s important to understand that nitrite itself isn’t always bad, as there are vegetables too that contain this compound. However, when it’s converted into N-nitroso compounds, that’s when it gets bad.
When processed meat is heated at high temperatures, nitrosamines are formed. So when you fry those bacon strips, you produce nitrosamines. Several review and experimental studies show that these compounds cause bowel cancer.
While some studies were based on animals, there are some studies with human subjects as well. One study published in Carcinogenesis going back to 1996 linked consumption of red meat to colon cancer.
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH)
Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or PAHs are another harmful set of compounds that form as a result of processing techniques. These form when you smoke, salt, or dry the meat.
As you can tell by the name of the compounds, these are hydrocarbons. These are most common in barbeque meat. They stick to the surface of the meat and go into your body when you eat them.
A review from the International Journal of Toxicology found that animal studies have shown a link between PAHs and cancer.
These aren’t just limited to smoked processed meat like sausages or burgers, even steaks can contain these compounds when smoked on a grill with charcoal or wood.
Heterocyclic Amines (HCA)
Heterocyclic Amines or HCAs, like Nitrosamines, form when the meat is cooked at a very high temperature. Again, this means that even your unprocessed meat may have these. However, there’s an even stronger presence in processed meat when it’s fried or grilled.
As this comparative study from the Journal of Nutrition indicates, the presence of HCAs is linked to rectal cancer.
This is why some experts recommend avoiding well-done meat and cooking it at lower temperatures. However, that doesn’t eliminate HCAs entirely.
2. High Sodium Content
If you’ve had bacon, pastrami, or even sausages, you would know that almost all processed meat has a salty taste.
Sodium chloride or table salt is a major ingredient in many of the meat curing processes. Salt, as you know, is a natural preservative, which humans have been using for centuries before we had freezers.
It’s an essential component of the processing stage, ensuring the meat lasts longer. However, it also has side effects as higher consumption of salt is a risk factor for many serious diseases.
Hypertension is the most common condition that results from high consumption of salt. So if you’re consuming processed meat on a regular basis, your body likely has more sodium chloride than it needs.
3. Risk of Heart Disease, Diabetes, and High Blood Pressure
Cancer typically tops the list when it comes to why processed meat is bad. However, it’s not the only disease you have to worry about. Processed meat is associated with several other chronic diseases.
As mentioned earlier, the high salt content of these products may be a culprit behind hypertension or high blood pressure. And hypertension itself is a risk factor for heart disease.
A 2010 study that compared the consumption of red meat and processed meat for risk of cardiovascular disease found the latter to be riskier. This is why doctors strongly advise against consuming processed meat to patients with heart diseases or those who are at a higher risk for it.
Similarly, other observational studies have also linked it with diabetes in a similar way. Although it’s unclear whether these products can cause diabetes, they certainly seem to increase the likelihood of the condition. Yes, there are other risk factors for diabetes, too, but poor diet is an important one.
4. Promote Weight Gain
Processed foods, in general, are often associated with unhealthy weight gain, and processed meat is no exception. While you may be under the impression that they contain basically protein and protein will not make you fat, but you also have to take into account the fats present in these foods.
Meat can be very high in saturated fat, so overconsumption can lead to unnecessary weight gain. And it’s not always muscle weight that you gain from protein.
Even if the processed meat itself isn’t rich in fat, you’ll get it from the oil you use to cook it. Most of such meat products need frying, which further increases the fat content. Then there are also small amounts of trans fats, which are simply too bad for your health.
5. Correlate With Other Unhealthy Habits
Have you noticed that people who consume a lot of processed meats often have other unhealthy habits? While it’s a generalized statement, there has been some research into this.
It’s unclear how but processed meat consumption is typically common in people who also drink a lot of sugary drinks, smoke, or are not very active. Since all these things come under unhealthy habits, it’s possible that there might be a connection.
And you have to admit that processed meat can be somewhat addictive too. All that processing makes it tasty, which means one can develop a strong likening for it that may be hard to let go of, even when you know that it’s bad.
There’s room for more research into this, but if you look around, you’ll surely see many examples of this link between consuming processed meat and other poor lifestyle choices.
Processed Meat vs. Butchered Meat
You might be wondering if processed meat is even worse than butchered meat? Well, in some aspects, yes, but as you can see from the above information, butchered meat can also contain carcinogens.
Red meat, in particular, is considered bad for your heart health. It can also raise your bad cholesterol levels. So even unprocessed meat isn’t completely off the hook.
The same goes for poultry and fish as well, which have their own negative impacts on health.
Moreover, you should also consider the environmental impact of meat, both processed and unprocessed. Cattle farms and meat factories contribute to greenhouse gases immensely.
Livestock is responsible for producing methane gas, which is even more toxic than carbon dioxide, as it produces more heat into the atmosphere. So not only is consuming meat and processed meat bad for your health, but also for the planet.
Are All Processed Meat Bad?
You’ve probably noticed that all the studies we have mentioned don’t distinctively mention red meat. Rather, they treat all processed meat the same. So, where does that leave us with processed foods made with chicken, turkey, fish, or crabs?
Well, as this Harvard School of Public Health article points out, current research considers all processed meat to be bad for health regardless of the source of the meat.
How to Avoid Processed Meat?
If you have the unhealthy habit of consuming processed foods, especially processed meat, there are steps you can take to limit or avoid it. It can be difficult if you’re too used to it, but not at all impossible.
The best solution to cut down processed foods altogether is to go whole-food plant-based. Focus more on fresh veggies, fruits, beans, and nuts. You can get all your nutrients from these whole foods.
Even within the plant-based and vegan categories, there are a lot of processed foods. Therefore, limit the intake of such processed foods as well.
You shouldn’t just go cold turkey but take it slow. Don’t cut out processed meat or meat out of your diet all of a sudden. That doesn’t work very well for some people, so you might want to take it slow.
Start by reducing it to three times a week, then two, and then finally once. Gradually, you’ll be able to go without it.
Some foods, especially processed foods and cheese can be addictive, which makes it hard for one to let go of them. However, if you make up your mind and dedicate yourself to eating better, you can stop the addiction.
It’s not like you can’t have meat at all when you go plant-based. With technological advancements and research, innovators have come up with meatless meat. In other words, you can try eating plant-based meat alternatives. They taste similar to the real meat and have the same texture.
You can find plant-based meat alternatives to almost all processed meat types, like bacon, burgers, and sausages. These often contain the same amount of protein as real meat products do. So if you must get your protein source through meat, meatless products could be a solution.
Nevertheless, even these meatless products are highly processed. While they may not contain carcinogens, they can’t give you the same goodness that whole foods can. Plus, these also are typically high in sodium chloride.
Make it a principle to limit processed foods, even if they come from relatively healthier sources.
Now that you understand why is processed meat so bad for you, it’s time to bring changes in your diet. A plant-based diet is inherently limited on processed foods and rich in whole foods. You could simply switch to a whole-food plant-based diet to eliminate processed meat from your diet.
The carcinogens in processed meat are simply too bad for your health. With the risk of so many diseases, it’s just not worth having, even if it tastes good.