pediatric housecalls Robert R. Jarrett M.D. M.B.A. FAAP

Aw Crap! Not The Bacon Too

Any of you who have been to an ER or other medical service lately know that we are big on heart health, especially regards to diet. By “we” I mean the medical profession, by “heart healthy” I mean focusing on activities beneficial to your heart and by “diet” it often means: “if it tastes good spit it out.”

Which, even though I believe it, is why my mind has been in a tail spin ever since I read about the latest research out of Europe from their “Epic” study. And by epic I mean both huge AND EPIC. EPIC stands for European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition and involves 10 countries and almost half a million men and women, not to mention physicians, health professionals and medical institutions.

In what is probably the largest study ever on the subject, middle-aged adults with high consumption of processed meats had a NEAR DOUBLING OF THE RISK of MORTALITY when the researchers compared them to similar people in the study with low consumption – over only twelve years. They didn’t even need to wait to near end of life.

Processed meats a double whammy

I mean we are talking about bacon, sausage and ham – probably the most beloved foodstuffs on the planet. So, the guys carefully and meticulously modeled the data but discovered that risk of cardiovascular death was increased by more than 70% for those who ate more than 160 grams per day compared to their counterparts who ate only less than 10-19.9 g/day.

That equates to an 18% greater risk of dying if you are a high consumer of processed meat.

boyBacon_ECEven the risk of dying of cancer was 43% higher among high consumers of processed meats. The EPIC study is still ongoing but as of June 2009 they had seen 26,344 deaths so they’ve taken that sub-group to run statistics. High consumers of all types of red meat were shown to have higher risk of death from all causes at the 95% percent confidence level and that correlation was even higher for the high consumers of processed meats.

When they did all the statistical corrections necessary to control for sample bias only the high correlation for process meats remained. With the portion of the data they looked at the investigators believe that over 3% of the deaths in that group might have been prevented if they had limited themselves to 20 or less grams per day.

In terms of slices that means less than one slice per day. Of course the weight depends on how thick the slice is cut. Normal slices are about one ounce (28 grams) but they cook down to less because they are usually more than 10% fat. A small shotgun-shell or thumb sized sausage link is also about 1 ounce. Which means that the study compared people who ate one or less slice of bacon etc. in a full day day with those who ate six or seven.

Why does this happen?

Who really know why this happens – that’s the subject for a different kind of investigation. However, some possibilities might be that processed meats contain more fat than unprocessed and cholesterol and additives (i.e. the smoking and curing) which might be linked to cancer. Also, the salt content in processed meats is higher – a lot higher (fat and salt, why do you think it tastes so good?) linking to hypertension another coronary risk factor.

The authors of the study also point out that the behavior of eating high amounts of processed meats went hand in hand with other unhealthy behaviors, including smoking, low physical-activity levels, and low consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Is this only in Europe?

There are at least two studies in the US comparing meat consumption and mortality which have also documented the link between meat consumption and CVD and cancer deaths. They, however, haven’t reported the greater link with processed meats. (I’m not 100% sure they have been looking for it though). This European study hasn’t (at least by the date of the sub-sample) shown statistically significant relation with just red meats by themselves but the two US studies have.

Kindly, the researchers did NOT go so far as recommending a vegetarian diet for everyone, even though they said that “a balanced vegetarian diet is okay as well.” They recommend definitely keeping total red meat intake levels to 300-600 grams per week in order to obtain important minerals and vitamins, and perhaps eliminating or diminishing process meats to under 20 grams per day.

Heart health and kids?

As in just about every other thing we do to our kids we set their habits and preferences for food from infancy on. Food fastidiousness and preferences are pretty much ingrained by grade school.

Do they like fatty foods? Will they eat “all that’s on their plates?” Do they crave meats at every meal? Must they have a desert with every meal? Will they eat vegetables and fruits? Must their cereal be slathered in sugar?

All these attitudes/preferences have a direct link to our parenting – absolutely no getting around it. Trust me, it’s easier to avoid if you don’t miss it in the first place.

[BMC Medicine 7 Mar 2013, 11:63]

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