The Washington Post published the article “Billboard warns hot dogs are as risky as cigarettes; Meat industry disagrees.” In the article, the argument ranges from “Hot dogs are part of a healthy, balanced diet” to “hot dogs and all processed meats should have a warning label, like cigarettes, to warn consumers of the health risks.”
A healthy balanced diet? I’m not quite convinced of that but the idea that processed meats increase health risks sure makes sense when you think about it. While the article doesn’t say why this is, studies have shown a connection.
The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund’s report “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective” recommends avoiding processed meats completely:
The recommendation concerning processed meats is even more rigorous. Based on convincing evidence, the panel recommends avoiding processed meats such as bacon, ham, sausage and lunchmeat. After carefully examining all of the evidence, the panel was not able to find a level at which consumption of processed meat could be reliably considered completely safe. Every 1.7 ounces of processed meat consumed per day increases risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent.
That’s worth repeating — Every 1.7 ounces of processed meat consumed per day increases risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent. That doesn’t take much – one lunch meat sandwich, one processed beef patty on your restaurant burger, or one hot dog at the street vendor each day.
Processed meats, as listed in the report, include “ham, bacon, pastrami, and salami. Sausages, frankfurters, and ‘hot dogs’, to which nitrates/nitrites or other preservatives are added, are also processed meats.” Basically any meat product that is packaged and has ingredients other than the meat itself is processed.
What is it about processed meat that is so bad? The article doesn’t say specifically, but we know that overheated and burnt meats produce carcinogenic compounds. So does preserving meat by smoking, curing, or salting, or with the addition of chemical preservatives. Hot dogs and other processed meats are cooked and preserved during processing, and then we often cook them again.
The report recommended that “if people eat processed meat at all, they save it for special occasions like ham at Christmas or the occasional hot dog at a baseball game.” I don’t know about you, but for me, knowing that something is, not only less than healthy, but downright harmful to my body, makes it a lot less appealing. On special occasions, I’d rather have something more… well, special.
Now, as adults, we make our own decisions. Our children, however, do not. As such, a significant concern is the volume of processed meats in our children’s diets. Typically, school and daycare food heavily favors processed meats. They’re cheaper and often more convenient. They are, after all, convenience foods. Menus include beef patties (not 100% beef!), beef crumbles, meatballs, chicken nuggets, chicken patties, ham, hot dogs, corn dogs and sausage links. These things are so highly processed that it’s almost misleading to call them meat. Parents will have to take charge to make sure their kids are eating healthily. This may mean sending sack lunches, educating your kids, and even getting involved with the school to advocate for better nutrition.
It’s clear that these food products have become a way of life for many. So what’s a person to do? We didn’t develop these habits overnight so changing them overnight may be too overwhelming. First, ask yourself these questions:
- How important is your health on a scale of 1-10?
- What, in your life, ranks higher than your health? (i.e. can this be a priority for me right now?)
- Are you committed to making changes in your diet and your family’s diet to reduce and avoid processed meats?
If the answer to #3 is ‘Yes!’, even if it’s ‘Yes, but…’, then here’s where you can start:
- Look at your menu plan (or if you don’t have one, write down your regular meals and do a quick inventory of your refrigerator and freezer).
- Identify any processed meats you eat.
- For each one, find a whole, real food substitute.
- Don’t forget eating out. Whether fast food or sit down, you may need to make some changes.
- Look at your child’s school menu and find ways to supplement their meals with healthy options.
- Choose one change to make the next time you go grocery shopping.
- Keep making one change at a time.
Avoid processed meats and your body will love you for it!