Is processed meat really linked to early death?

Widely reported in the media today is the unsavoury news that consumption of processed meats may increase the risk of dying young.

Bacon - delicious or deadly? Possibly both!

Bacon – delicious or deadly? Possibly both!

The report, published in the journal BioMed Central Medicine, specifically mentions ham, bacon, sausages, and “minced meat that has been bought as a ready-to-eat product”. It also points out that “processed meat” usually contains red meat but may contain small amounts of poultry and rabbit.

The study followed 448,568 men and women “without prevalent cancer, stroke, or myocardial infarction” who were between 35 and 69 years of age for an average of 12.7 years. That’s a large number of people, and a reasonably long period of time — both important criteria in studies like this. The researchers recorded the diets and physical activity of these participants, as well as noting other habits such as smoking.

Taking all these factors into account (with some statistical juggling) it was estimated that 3.5% of the 26,344 deaths that occurred could have been prevented if the participants had reduced their consumption of processed meat to less than 20g per day — approximately one rasher of bacon. That’s over 900 people who might still be alive today.

The health effects that were most noted were for cardiovascular disease. However, cancer rates were also higher.

It remains unclear as to whether there is a clear cause here. Does eating processed meat lead directly to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer for any given individual? Or do people who avoid processed meat tend to have healthier lifestyles? The researchers pontificate that the “high content of cholesterol and fatty acids” and “high intake… of heme iron” may be directly to blame. However they also suggest that the “lower overall mortality” of “vegetarians and health-conscious non-vegetarians… is in large part due to a healthy lifestyle, that is, being non-smokers, being leaner and more physically active, and so on.”

Having said that, the authors conclude with a clear statement: “our analyses suggest that men and women with a high consumption of processed meat are at increased risk of early death”.

They also noted some fairly complex correlations, such as “very high consumption of red meat” being associated with increased deaths from cancer, but “not with deaths due to cardiovascular diseases, respiratory diseases, diseases of the digestive tract, or any other cause of death.” So we can see that the detail here is far from straightforward!

So what does this all mean?? Should we avoid bacon sarnies, and greasy-spoon fry-ups? Well, probably there’s little here that most people don’t know already: a healthy diet consists of variety, including plenty of fruits and vegetables. This study bolsters that opinion quite strongly — while also hinting at direct causes of serious illness. Clearly further research is required, and doubtless there will be a lot more analysis regarding this study. Hopefully it will be reported by the media, although the vagaries and nuance of science don’t always make for snappy, eye-catching headlines.

Your osteopath may ask about your dietary habits during examination and treatment. Very occasionally we may be concerned about serious underlying illness that has yet to be diagnosed, but this is rarely the case. As health-care practitioners we have a duty to inform people of their most suitable route to a healthier life — so you may expect your osteopath to suggest cutting back on the fried bacon and sausages, and maybe eating a few more fruit and veg! Most of our patients know they should be doing this already, and hopefully this study will help us all be more mindful of our diets.

Austin Plunkett

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