Aside from cancer risks, all processed meats tend to be high in sodium, so that is “an important factor,” Dr. Hu said. Excess sodium intake can increase the risk of high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
Processed meats have also been linked with an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and dementia. One large 2021 study performed in Britain, for instance, concluded that for every additional 25 grams (or about one ounce) of processed meat in a person’s daily diet, the risk of dementia increased by 44 percent, and that of Alzheimer’s disease increased by 52 percent.
Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, an assistant professor of medicine at the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, said that the concern with processed meat is that it can increase inflammation in the body, in part by altering the microbiome of the gut. “The gut bacteria interact with our immune system and eventually lead to chronic inflammation,” she said, which can affect blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol, increasing the risk of chronic disease and even death.
“A plant-based diet will be much more preventive at reducing risk,” Dr. Surampudi said. “It doesn’t mean you have to go 100 percent vegan or vegetarian,” she said, just that the majority of your diet should come from plant-based sources.
This way of eating is also typically better for the environment.
So, does this mean it’s better to eat plant-based processed meat alternatives?
“Potentially, processed meat alternatives are better than processed meats, but not all processed meat alternatives are created equal,” Dr. Hu said. Ultimately, it depends on what the products are made of — whether they are fully plant-based analogues or products made from a blend of meat and vegetables. But, he added, “of course, a more optimal diet should be based on minimally processed plant-based foods.”
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