Red meat isn’t at the top of anyone’s heart-healthy list, but few studies have investigated the difference between processed red meats, such as ham, salami, sausage, bacon and hot dogs, and unprocessed ones, such as cuts of steak.
To find out if there’s a meaningful health difference, researchers at Warsaw University and the Karolinska Institute analyzed data from 37,035 middle aged men who answered questions about their diet and were followed for nearly 12 years. After adjusting for things such as their age, other health conditions and their consumption of fruits and vegetables, the scientists found that the men who ate the most processed red meat had a 28% higher risk of having heart failure than those who ate less. And those who ate the most sausages, hot dogs and hams were two times as likely to die of heart failure than those who ate less.
Over the study period, that breaks down to a 38% increased risk of dying from a heart-related event for every one to two slices of ham. Many processed meats are also smoked, cured and treated with salt, which can add potentially harmful chemicals—and possibly be more dangerous to the heart.
Men who ate more unprocessed meat—which included things such as pork, beef and hamburger—did not show the added risk of heart problems. But overall, those who ate more red meat (both processed and unprocessed) did have a higher rate of heart disease. That’s consistent with previous studies that linked high consumption of red meat with heart disease. So the best option for the heart may be to bypass the deli counter altogether, but for meat lovers who can’t give up their meat, choosing unprocessed cuts might be a better option. “Unprocessed meat is free from food additives and usually has a lower amount of sodium,” said Alicja Wolk, senior author of the study from the Karolinska Institute, in a statement.