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Should I Avoid Processed Meat?

Make no bones about it – eating too much processed meat is linked with an increased risk of cancer, but so is alcohol and sun/UV.

A client asked me whether to stop eating ham because it’s processed.

As always, let’s break it down a bit. What does processed mean?

Packaged salad is processed; so is protein powder (about as highly processed as it gets). So are canned tomatoes, wine, cooked chicken breast (added water, dextrose etc), Diet Coke, chewing gum, apples (covered in wax) and lots of other foods.

According to the NHS

  • A processed food is any food that has been altered in some way during preparation.
  • Food processing can be as basic as: freezing, canning, baking, drying
  • Not all processed foods are unhealthy but some processed foods may contain high levels of salt, sugar and fat.
  • Some foods need processing to make them safe, such as milk, which needs to be pasteurised to remove harmful bacteria. Other foods need processing to make them suitable for use, such as pressing seeds to make oil.
  • Ingredients such as salt, sugar and fat are sometimes added to processed foods to make their flavour more appealing and to extend their shelf life, or in some cases to contribute to the food’s structure, such as salt in bread or sugar in cakes. Buying processed foods can lead to people eating more than the recommended amounts of sugar, salt and fat as they may not be aware of how much has been added to the food they are buying and eating. These foods can also be higher in calories due to the high amounts of added sugar or fat in them.
  • You have no control over the amount salt, sugar and fat in processed food but you do have control over what you to choose buy.

So, you can see that most food is processed, it just depends how it is processed, how much the food is altered from its natural state and what has been added to it.

Why Stop Eating Ham?

The question I asked my client who had enquired about ham was,

“What is the reason that you are thinking of stopping eating ham? Is it for health reasons or aesthetics reasons?”

Processed meats are generally thought to be unhealthy but I would suggest that alcohol is more unhealthy than ham. However, I know lots of people who won’t eat ham but will drink alcohol. Also, I would say bacon is more processed and less healthy than lean ham but the “healthy” paleo guys love bacon!

The main reason I would stop eating ham is that it is higher calorie than chicken.

In terms of drawing a line in the sand with regard to processed foods, there are two main questions I would ask:

  • Has the food been shown to be harmful to health when consumed regularly?
  • Are you demonising that food because of what you’ve heard on the news? E.G. cutting out salami but still drinking alcohol and going on the sunbed.

Final Thoughts

So, would I avoid ham? It’s not the healthiest choice but it’s not asbestos.

In terms of health, you’ve heard the old saying, “The dose makes the poison”. The more ham (and other processed meats) that you eat the more you are increasing your risk of health issues. Think smoking (one fag a day vs 40 a day – there is a dose-dependent risk).

Therefore I would suggest that a few small pieces of ham to jazz up your chicken salad, occasionally, would be a sensible approach.

More Information

Eating processed foods

Processed meat and cancer – what you need to know

Dan Sroda
Personal Trainer at Reach Personal Training
Dan Sroda is a Personal Trainer based in Birstall, serving Leeds and Bradford.


As the owner and lead trainer at Reach Personal Training, I am responsible for the philosophy of the business and overseeing client programmes.

My mission is for Reach Personal Training to be synonymous with a long-term, real-life approach to health and fitness. We help our clients to integrate health and fitness into their busy lives. We don't do fads. We don't do crash diets. We do "Fitness For Life".

I have a family. I’ve always worked (and not always in the fitness industry). I have housework and shopping to do. I have a REAL life. So I know what it takes to balance a real life with a sustainable approach to health and fitness.

If I can do it then anyone else can too. All you need is the desire to make eating healthily and keeping fit a priority in your life. An hour a day, thirty minutes a day, even fifteen minutes a day of exercise, supported with a healthy diet based on whole foods, is all it takes to make steady long-term progress towards looking and feeling fantastic.

I have a few simple values upon which I have built Reach Personal Training. Only personal trainers who share these values will be part of our team.

- Friendliness. Just be a genuinely nice person, it's dead simple and it's the best way to live. Smile as much as possible and try to see the best in every situation.

- No fads. No pseudoscience. My background in academia makes me question everything. There is so much nonsense in the fitness industry, mainly because some people are in it to make money so they'll believe anything and questioning it will mean they can't believe in the product. We are different. We do what works. We use science to create our programmes and we never put profit over effectiveness. You will NEVER find Herbalife or Forever Living in our studio!

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