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Over the past few decades, some medical researchers have pointed the finger at meat consumption as a major factor in the development of heart disease and diabetes. However, a meta-analysis conducted by the Harvard School of Medical Health has concluded that it may be the salt and chemical preservatives used in processed meats that lead to health problems, not the meats themselves.
In a meta-analysis, researchers look through many pre-existing studies that are related to a particular question or problem. In this case, the Harvard researchers wanted to determine if meat by itself-pork, beef, or lamb-was a factor in the onset of cardiovascular problems and type 2 diabetes. Alternatively, could the way meat is processed be a factor?
After examining 1,600 studies, the researchers found that the consumption of unprocessed meats-meats that have not been cured, salted, or marinated, but are simply butchered and sold quickly for immediate consumption-did not lead to increased risk of heart attack or diabetes. However, the daily consumption of even small amounts of processed meats (1.8 oz/50 grams) such as bacon, salami, franks, sausages, and deli meats, was associated with a 42 percent higher risk of heart disease and a 19 percent increased chance of developing type 2.
The researchers did not look at studies that covered high blood pressure or cancer, two other medical outcomes that some research has associated with meat consumption. The effect of eating poultry, which does not contain the same amount of fat as beef, lamb, and pork, was also excluded from the study.
The researchers noted that although processed and unprocessed meats contain similar amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol, processed meats have four times more sodium and 50 percent more nitrate preservatives than unprocessed meats.
Because the study was weighted to compare people who ate similar amounts of meat per week, whether processed or not, the researchers recommended that for best results, people restrict their consumption of processed meats to one serving a week.
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