The Heartbreak of The Deli Counter: More Thinly Sliced Data

The notion that processed meat is not good for your health is not a new one. The high salt content, additives, and even just the red meat itself are all known to be linked to increased incidence of high blood pressure, heart disease, and obesity. But it is also known that studies assessing nutritional intake and health outcomes are notoriously difficult to carry out, and even more difficult to interpret. Even when such studies attempt to tease out other lifestyle variables such as exercise habits, tobacco use, alcohol intake, stress, and sleep quality, the data are always subject to debate, especially when a smattering of genetics and co-morbidities (other health issues) are thrown in.

A 2019 editorial in the Annals of Internal Medicine pointed out the reasons for these inconsistencies. In it, the authors describe several studies with vastly differing conclusions, ranging from “processed meat is carcinogenic” to “processed meat is probably carcinogenic” to “the association between processed meat consumption and colon cancer and cardiovascular disease is weak.” The editorial then reviews several meta-analyses which included hundreds of other studies, totaling over six million individuals. These studies found extremely small differences in overall health outcomes based on processed meat consumption, including all-cause mortality, cancer, and heart disease.

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