You really should think twice about having bacon for breakfast. It's common knowledge that eating too much processed meat (meaning it has preservatives) like bacon, breakfast sausages, salami, and ham bad for your heart, thanks to sky-high amounts of saturated fat, sodium, and nitrates. But new research shows that even just a little bit of processed meat puts you at much greater risk for heart failure and cardiac-related death than forgoing it altogether. Surprisingly, the study also showed that moderate consumption of unprocessed red meat, such as lean beef and pork, doesn't pose heart risks.
In the first study to compare processed red meat versus unprocessed, researchers tracked more than 37,000 men with no history of heart disease for 12 years. They found that guys who ate 75 grams or more a day of processed meat – that's just three slices of ham or one small bratwurst – had a 28 percent greater chance of heart failure than those who ate 25 grams or less. Those men were also twice as likely to die from cardiovascular issues as the 25-grams-or-less group. And here's the real kicker: For every 50-gram increase in processed red meat consumption per day – again, we're talking about just a few thin slices of lunch meat – the risk of cardiac-related death jumped 38 percent.
The researchers think processed red meat is problematic because it's packed with sodium, nitrates, phosphates, and other additives, all of which may jack up heart failure risk. Plus, smoked and grilled processed meats contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, potential carcinogens that studies also peg as a risk factor for heart disease. Finally, processed meat products are commonly made from fatty pieces and otherwise-discarded parts, so the saturated fat content is crazy-high, according to Linda Van Horn, RD, professor of preventative medicine at Northwestern University and spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
While processed red meat took a beating in this study, unprocessed meat emerged looking like a winner. Van Horn says lean cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb are usually less fatty and don't contain scads of sodium or artificial garbage like your average hot dog does. All of those factors add up to unprocessed meat being far less risky.
That said, all red meat contains some fat and a fair amount of calories, so you don't want to overdo it. "Choose fresh, lean cuts and stick to a 3- to 5-ounce serving no more than four times a week," Van Horn says. "And that's only if the rest of your diet is high quality, with lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains." In other words, if you eat red meat, make sure you're mixing in plenty of other nutritious foods to give your body a balance. You can also get your protein from other, potentially better, sources: "There are many studies that point to fish, chicken, or turkey as recommended choices, as well as going with a plant-based diet," says Van Horn.