You may now eat steak

New Flash: processed meats are high in salt.  Another news flash: fresh unprocessed meats are not high in salt.  When researchers compared intake of processed vs. fresh meat to heart disease risk they discovered that, lumping all “meat” together isn’t a good idea.  Apparently processed meat intake is linked to increased risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.  Consumption of unprocessed red meat is not.

The first question is Why?  Nutrition researchers have always assumed that the problem with all red meat was the fat content.  But processed meats and fresh meats have very similar fat content.  So it must be something else.  Attention turned to the sodium content.  Processed meats contain lots of added salt.  That’s part of what makes those items processed:

  • bacon
  • bologna
  • sausages
  • hot dogs
  • other cold cuts like salami

By the way, these processed meats are also higher in other things like nitrites, flavors and fillers.  But the study authors focused on the salt content, which is about 4 times higher in processed meat products than in fresh beef or pork.  High sodium intake is a national problem, and is linked to high blood pressure.

What this study did not investigate: whether people who eat lots of processed meat products also have a different diet in general.  More convenience foods?  More junk food or soda pop?  Less fruits or vegetables?  More salt added to foods?  Who knows?  Unfortunately, the focus of this study was only on the meats.  No information is available about the rest of peoples’ diets.  One of the study authors from Harvard, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, made a brilliant comment:

There is growing evidence that it’s not which nutrient we eat, but the type of foods we eat that is important……We have to get away from trying to micromanage nutrients and look at the health quality of foods.

Absolutely true.  But thanks to this type of single-focus study, we’ll just get more manipulation of sodium in processed foods.  Diets won’t be healthier.  They’ll just be lower sodium.

So which is the better choice for people who enjoy processed meats?

  • A healthy diet, full of fruits, vegetables, whole grain foods and fresh meat, fish and poultry, with the occasional hot dog.
  • A diet that’s heavy on low sodium processed meat products and lots of other processed foods, with few fruits or vegetables and no whole grains.

Hopefully you already know the answer to that question.  Here’s another tip: the study compared very modest portions of processed vs. red meat: 2 oz vs. 4 oz.  If you think this study gives you permission to gorge on giant 1 pound steaks and triple burgers, think again.  A 4 oz portion of red meat is about the size of a deck of playing cards.  It could fit in the palm of your hand.

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