The effects of processed meats on your heart health


Seemingly everywhere you turn, you’ll find information on the dangers of red meat and its link to cardiovascular disease (CVD). But there has been very little research about how processed meats (such as bacon, sausages, hot dogs and deli meats) affect heart health – until now.

In a decade-long global study, researchers analyzed the diets and health outcomes of almost 135,000 people across 21 countries. They tracked meat consumption and rate of CVD across a diverse range of cultures and income levels. The findings, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed processed meat has a more significant impact on the risk of CVD and death than either unprocessed red meat or poultry.

Linking processed meats and heart disease

Processed meats are any meats transformed by salting, curing, smoking or adding chemical preservatives. That transformation often leaves processed meat with a high concentration of salt, in addition to the saturated fat many meats already contain. The added salt can quickly add up, increasing blood pressure, weight and the risk of heart disease – three common causes of CVD.

How much processed meat should you eat?

The study found that eating 150 grams (slightly more than 5 ounces) or more of processed meat a week increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 46% and the risk of death by 50% when compared to eating no processed meat. To give you an idea, 5 ounces of processed meat is equivalent to approximately:

  • Five slices of bacon
  • Less than two hot dogs
  • Five slices of deli meat (cut 1/8-inch thick)

For many years, experts have recommended avoiding (or at least limiting) your consumption of processed meats. Research continues to uncover additional reasons to eliminate processed meats from your diet.

Other health risks associated with processed meat

Previous studies show that processed meat has many negative health effects in addition to CVD. The World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Agency on Research for Cancer (IARC) classifies processed meat as carcinogenic (potentially cancer-causing) to humans. Eating 50 grams of processed meat daily has been linked to increased risk for:

  • Breast cancer
  • Colorectal cancer
  • Pancreatic cancer
  • Prostate cancer

Another recent study, also published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, establishes a link between processed meat and dementia. Researchers found that eating 25 grams of processed meat per day may increase the risk of dementia by 44% and Alzheimer’s disease, in particular, by 52%.

Tips for limiting or avoiding processed meat

From bacon and sausage to sandwiches and hot dogs, processed meats are abundant. If you find yourself eating too much processed meat, try:

  • Choosing spicy vegetarian sausages as a substitute for bacon, chorizo or salami
  • Eating roasted vegetables with eggs instead of bacon or sausage
  • Reading the label, and avoiding items with ingredients such as nitrate and nitrite, or words including “cured” or “salted”
  • Replacing deli meats with options such as fresh chicken or fish
  • Trying different protein sources, including eggs, cottage cheese, tofu and hummus

To understand your risk for CVD or how your diet may be affecting your health, make an appointment with a UCLA Health primary care provider.