Should I Avoid Processed Meat?

A client asked me whether to stop eating ham because it’s processed. My answer, as always, was, “Why?

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?

Yes, 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 worse than 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?
  • Does the food impact on your progress towards your aesthetics goal when consumed regularly?

Let’s use ham as an example.

Has the food been shown to be harmful to health when consumed regularly? YES (Cancer)

Does the food impact on your progress towards your aesthetics goal when consumed regularly? YES (Calories)

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).

With regard to losing body fat, if you are on a calorie-controlled diet then you don’t want to be getting most of your protein from ham because of the calorie density.

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

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