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Ask Dr. Jake: How Much Meat Is Too Much?


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Jake Deutsch, M.D., is a veteran ER doctor and a contributor to The Daily Details. Send your health questions to Ask@Details.com. We'll publish the answers here every week.

My nurse rushes into my office and says, "The guy in Room 5 has a piece of beef jerky stuck in his throat and he's choking." I immediately bolt to his bedside, where I learn my patient scarfed down some processed-meat sticks after a workout; now he's in the ER unable to swallow even his own saliva. I assure him that he's not going to die and prep for an emergent endoscopy, a tiny camera and robotic tool to snag the stubbornly lodged piece of jerky.

I remembered this case the other day as I read a study that shows how eating processed meats, like jerky, has far worse health risks than the occasional case of Slim Jim obstruction.

These days, everyone seems obsessed with protein loading. We are so petrified of carbs that we would rather eat an entire hog than touch a plate of pasta. Have we fried our brains like our bacon? Lean protein, particularly from fish and chicken, is a great choice for keeping trim and maintaining muscle mass—not processed meats like sausage, ham, or salami.

One European study tracked nearly half a million people aged 35-65 over 12 years. Researchers found that people who eat processed meats have a small but marked increase in premature death, and you don't have to eat much mystery meat to be at risk. Consuming more than 20 grams a day—that's about two slices of bacon—is enough to inch you one step closer to the grave. However, if your diet is a real sausagefest and you pig out on more than 160 grams of processed meat daily, then your risk of premature death increases by 44 percent.

If you're telling yourself you've got nothing to worry about, then consider the mile-high club sandwich from the deli you slammed down the other day. That meal alone pencils you in for a dance with the Boars Head Grim Reaper.

It's no surprise that the same study showed that those who eat canned meat (preserved with salt, smoke, nitrate, and fats) are also more likely to make poor health choices in other areas. Smoking, alcohol consumption, and a diet high in saturated fats go hand in hand with people who crave Spam. Furthermore, hypertension, heart disease, and cancer all reared their ugly heads at a higher rate among meat lovers; cancer jumped nearly 15 percent, and cardiovascular deaths increased by 70 percent.

What about lean red meat, you may wonder. If you load up at Whole Foods instead of the hot-dog cart, should you even care? According to a major U.S. study conducted last year, eating any amount of lean red meat increases the chances of premature death by about 13 percent. In contrast, the latest study on processed meats found that eating a moderate amount of lean red meat (about a pound) a week was actually beneficial, similar to the American Heart Association's recommended small portion (about three ounces) several times a week as part of the heart-healthy diet.

The bottom line: While having a low-carb, high-protein diet might tighten the waistline, it may shorten your lifeline. Before you commit salami suicide, make sure your meat choices are lean and mean.

—Dr. Jake Deutsch is an New York City-based ER doctor. Follow him @DrJakeDeutsch.

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