I can still remember it. Waking up as a child to the smell of bacon wafting up the stairs on weekend mornings. Even my health-conscious mom felt this weekly indulgence was worth it. But in the decades since then, we’ve learned a lot more about how bacon, and other similarly processed meats, can impact our health. So let’s take a look at some of the most important things you should know before including them in your diet.

What is a Processed Meat?

Most of the food we buy undergoes some form of processing on the way to our grocery shelves, which doesn’t necessarily live up to the negative press that “food processing” receives. But other processing is less benign. Meats like bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, corned beef, salami, jerky, and some canned meats undergo more significant changes in order to extend their shelf life, or to change the taste. This includes methods such as smoking, curing, or adding salt and other preservatives to the meat. So, what exactly should you consider before consuming these foods?

They Are Often High in Fat

It is true that processed meats provide a good amount of protein, but that’s not all. A typical ounce of sausage or bacon also contains a lot of fat. In fact, more than half of the calories that occur in these meats come from fat. Because of this, an ounce of bacon contains triple the calories than an ounce of chicken breast, yet with the same amount of protein. While higher-calorie foods certainly have their place in the diet, in general, sticking primarily with leaner forms of protein is a good idea. Some examples include skinless poultry, seafood, lean ground meats, low fat dairy, eggs, and beans.

They Contain a Lot of Sodium

Along with contributing a lot of flavor, salt is an excellent preservative. As part of the curing process, meats are soaked in a solution of salt, nitrates, and sometimes other additives, like sugar. So, processed meats are generally quite high in sodium. This is primarily a concern for those with a history of high blood pressure, or heart disease. If this is true for you, choose less processed foods, and limit the amount of additional salt you add to meals.

They Contain Nitrates

It’s become quite common to see products labeled with claims about Nitrates, especially processed meats. Nitrates and nitrites are compounds that are added during the curing process. They are either natural or synthetic compounds that help to hinder the growth of bacteria in meats. Unfortunately, when exposed to the high heat of cooking they form compounds known as Nitrosamines, known carcinogenic compounds. Research has linked the regular intake of processed meats with certain types of cancer including breast, lung, colon, and liver. To limit your risk, focus on consuming primarily unprocessed forms of meats, fish, and poultry.

Bottom line

Processed meats like bacon, sausage, and hot dogs can have their place in a diet. However, because of their higher levels of additives, and potential health risks, they should be used sparingly. Instead, focus on getting your protein from options like fresh chicken, turkey, lean meats, seafood, low-fat dairy, and beans.