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Americans Continue to Eat Processed Meat Despite Serious Health Warnings
By Dan Gray
Processed foods, in their many delicious forms, are an American favorite.
But new research shows that despite increasing evidence on just how unhealthy processed foods are, Americans have continued to eat the products at the same rate.
A study published in the July edition of Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics looked at trends between 1999 and 2016.
Data on nearly 44,000 people shows that over this timespan the amount of processed meat consumed by adults in the U.S. has remained unchanged.
Consumption of healthier meat options such as fish and shellfish also stayed the same.
If there's a silver lining, it's news that Americans are eating more chicken and less red meat than they used to.
Given the acknowledged health risks of consuming processed meats, the data would seem to suggest that Americans are unaware of these dangers.
Experts interviewed by Healthline say the report isn't particularly surprising. They also offer some advice on how to eat better.
What is Processed Meat?
Processed meat isn't hard to identify.
Any meat product that's been altered in some way to add flavor or shelf life is considered processed.
The long list includes certain deli meats, along with hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and ham.
"The World Health Organization (WHO) declared processed red meat to be in the same cancer-causing category as cigarettes and plutonium, so it obviously carries some significant danger," Dr. Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health, told Healthline.
To understand what makes these meats so unhealthy, it helps to look at what's in it.
"A lot of it has to do with the actual components associated with the processing of red meat," explained Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RDN, a licensed, registered dietitian who manages wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
One primary component of processed meat are nitrites and nitrates, components that prevent the growth of bacteria and add a salty flavor.
"A large WHO study showed strong associations between nitrates and nitrites and cancers of the stomach and colon," Kirkpatrick told Healthline. "Just last week, The BMJ found early death associated with processed red meat as well, showing that processed red meat carries much more sodium than unprocessed meat, potentially increasing the risk for hypertension, stroke, and heart attack."
Why Do We Keep Eating It?
Freeman acknowledges one big reason for the popularity of these meat products.
"It tastes really good," he said. "When meats are cured, salted, and spiced, it makes them taste good — although I would argue you can put those same spices on vegetables and make them taste good, too."
Delicious as it is, why aren't more people aware of the risks? The study's lead author believes it has to do with a lack of education.
"While factors other than health (e.g. social, cultural and economic) can influence Americans' food choices, the lack of widespread awareness of health risks associated with processed meat may have contributed to the lack of consumption change in the past 18 years," Dr. Fang Fang Zhang of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston, said in a press release.
Freeman agrees, saying it's good business for major food producers to downplay the risks and continue marketing their products. In this way, processed meat is pervasive in the U.S.
"The clincher is that these products are served in healthcare institutions," he said. "You can walk into a large majority of hospital systems in this country and get bacon, eggs, salami, whatever. If you see that stuff served everywhere and see fast food commercials, it's hard to realize that there could be harm.
He also points out that while other carcinogenic products such as cigarettes have warning labels, processed meats contain no such caution.
"If you go to the store right now, there's nothing on the packaging saying this product may be associated with cancer, or with heart disease for that matter, sadly," Freeman said. "It doesn't surprise me that the study showed no change and it should be a warning to us that we really need to do a much better effort at raising awareness of the risks of consuming these products regularly."
How Much is Too Much?
For anyone who loves a hot dog at the ballpark or sausages at a summer cookout, the idea of dropping processed meat entirely may seem daunting.
A diet that includes no processed meat is ideal, but it can be enjoyed as an occasional treat.
Kirkpatrick says that eating processed meat even once a day is "way too much."
"Many experts would say never eating processed meat is acceptable, but if we look at the studyTrusted Source in The BMJ, participants were grouped by consumption and the lowest consumption — less than six times per month, or none at all — had better outcomes. I tell my patients to look at red processed meat the same way they do dessert — a few times a month as a treat."
For carnivores wary of moving to a fully plant-based diet, there are healthier meat-based options available.
"Fish is a fabulous source of protein and lots of fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may be protective to health," said Kirkpatrick. "Wild line-caught salmon, wild trout, and sardines are some of the best."
Making change on an individual level requires willpower, but it is still relatively straightforward. Changing things on a societal level constitutes a much bigger task.
Prior studies have shown the health risks of processed meats. But this most recent study, one that shows societal trends, could help move the needle in the right direction.
"Findings of this study can inform public health policy priorities for improving diet and reducing chronic disease burden in the U.S.," said Zhang. "Because stores and fast food restaurants are the main purchase locations for processed meat, future policies may prioritize these as primary sites of intervention for reducing processed meat consumption among U.S. adults."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.
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Cabin fever is often associated with being cooped up on a rainy weekend or stuck inside during a winter blizzard.
In reality, though, it can actually occur anytime you feel isolated or disconnected from the outside world.
What is cabin fever?<p>In popular expressions, cabin fever is used to explain feeling bored or listless because you've been stuck inside for a few hours or days. But that's not the reality of the symptoms.</p><p>Instead, cabin fever is a series of negative emotions and distressing sensations people may face if they're isolated or feeling cut off from the world.</p><p>These feelings of isolation and loneliness are more likely in times of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/yes-covid-19-cases-are-rising-why-you-still-need-to-practice-social-distancing" target="_blank">social distancing</a>, self-quarantining during a <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/what-is-a-pandemic" target="_blank">pandemic</a>, or sheltering in place because of severe weather.</p><p>Indeed, cabin fever can lead to a series of symptoms that can be difficult to manage without proper coping techniques.</p><p>Cabin fever isn't a recognized psychological disorder, but that doesn't mean the feelings aren't real. The distress is very real. It can make fulfilling the requirements of everyday life difficult.</p>
What are the symptoms?<p>Symptoms of cabin fever go far beyond feeling bored or "stuck" at home. They're rooted in an intense feeling of isolation and may include:</p><ul><li>restlessness</li><li>decreased motivation</li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/irritability" target="_blank">irritability</a></li><li>hopelessness</li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/unable-to-concentrate" target="_blank">difficulty concentrating</a></li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/irregular-sleep-wake-syndrome" target="_blank">irregular sleep patterns</a>, including sleepiness or sleeplessness</li><li>difficulty waking up</li><li><a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/lethargy" target="_blank">lethargy</a></li><li>distrust of people around you</li><li>lack of patience</li><li>persistent <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/depression-vs-sadness" target="_blank">sadness or depression<br></a></li></ul>
What can help you cope with cabin fever?<p>Because cabin fever isn't a recognized psychological condition, there's no standard "treatment." However, mental health professionals do recognize that the symptoms are very real.</p><p>The coping mechanism that works best for you will have a lot to do with your personal situation and the reason you're secluded in the first place.</p><p>Finding meaningful ways to engage your brain and occupy your time can help alleviate the distress and irritability that cabin fever brings.</p><p>The following ideas are a good place to start.</p>
When to get help<p>Cabin fever is often a fleeting feeling. You may feel irritable or frustrated for a few hours, but having a virtual chat with a friend or finding a task to distract your mind may help erase the frustrations you felt earlier.</p><p>Sometimes, however, the feelings may grow stronger, and no coping mechanisms may be able to successfully help you eliminate your feelings of isolation, sadness, or depression.</p><p>What's more, if your time indoors is prolonged by outside forces, like weather or extended shelter-in-place orders from your local government, feelings of <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/anxiety" target="_blank">anxiety</a> and fear are valid.</p><p>In fact, anxiety may be at the root of some cabin fever symptoms. This may make symptoms worse.</p><p>If you feel that your symptoms are getting worse, consider reaching out to a mental health professional who can help you understand what you're experiencing. Together, you can identify ways to overcome the feelings and anxiety.</p><p>Of course, if you're in isolation or practicing social distancing, you'll need to look for alternative means for seeing a mental health expert.</p><p>Telehealth options may be available to connect you with your therapist if you already have one. If you don't, reach out to your doctor for recommendations about mental health specialists who can connect with you online.</p><p>If you don't want to talk to a therapist, <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health/depression/top-iphone-android-apps" target="_blank">smartphone apps for depression</a> may provide a complementary option for addressing your cabin fever symptoms.</p>
The bottom line<p>Isolation isn't a natural state for many people. We are, for the most part, social animals. We enjoy each other's company. That's what can make staying at home for extended periods of time difficult.</p><p>However, whether you're sheltering at home to avoid dangerous weather conditions or heeding the guidelines to help minimize the spread of a disease, staying at home is often an important thing we must do for ourselves and our communities.</p><p>If and when it's necessary, finding ways to engage your brain and occupy your time may help bat back cabin fever and the feelings of isolation and restlessness that often accompany it.</p>
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