Are we mistaken about bacon?

Research reveals the consequences of consuming too much meat

by Andrew Cullen campus and city editor


I often hear students complaining about the meat served in the SDR. They complain about the quality of the meat, the seasoning put on the meat, or the fact that it is “always” chicken. Others are dissatisfied when the main course isn’t meat, claiming that a “real meal” has to include meat.

Regardless of whether or not you prefer meat with every meal, the reality is meat has become a staple of the American diet. According to a recent article published in Time magazine, Americans eat more beef and veal than any other country and are the third largest consumer of pork.

What is the effect of this meat consumption on our health? And specifically how does processed red meat affect our health?

Leslie Dickstein reported red meats are “all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.” The Harvard School of Public Health defined processed meat as “any meat preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or with the addition of chemical preservatives; examples include bacon, salami, sausages, hot dogs or processed deli or luncheon meats.” Beef jerky, chicken nuggets, canned meat, pepperoni and corned beef can be added to this list of processed meats.

According to the USDA, the average American consumes 71.1 pounds of red meat per year, which is 60 percent of our total meat consumption, and 22 percent of the meat we consume is processed.

The problem with processed meats is they contain sodium nitrates. Because microorganisms grow best in moist, high-protein foods, raw meat often carries foodborne illnesses. Sodium nitrates fight harmful bacteria and improve the taste and shelf life of meat. However, research conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health has found a link between processed meat intake and an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. 

The study found that “eating processed meat… was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 percent higher risk of type 2 diabetes.”

In addition, recent research by the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that each year 34,000 cancer deaths are attributed to diets high in processed meat. Eating 50 grams of processed red meat per day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. How much is 50 grams of meat? Six slices of bacon, five slices of salami, two slices of ham, two slices of Canadian bacon or one hot dog. 

Even meats that are labeled “NO NITRATES ADDED” usually contain celery juice, which is naturally high in sodium nitrate.

Not only do processed red meats have harmful preservatives added, but processed red meats also are naturally high in fat and cholesterol and are not nearly as nutritious as unprocessed lean meats, such as fish and chicken. 

One of the biggest improvements we can make in our diets is to reduce our consumption of processed red meats. I’m not advocating that everyone become a vegetarian. The Harvard School of Public Health said, “…eating one serving per week or less would be associated with relatively small risk [of heart disease or type 2 diabetes].”

By eating less processed red meat, even if it is three or four servings a week, we can reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer without eliminating meat from our diets. It might be difficult at first, but one thing is for certain: the long-term benefits are worth it. 

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