Bacon and Salami: Could Your Sandwich Be Making It Harder to Breathe?

If you’re a fan of cured meats like salami, chorizo, and bacon, you might want to sit down for this one. While we all know that these savory treats can be high in fat and sodium, leading to weight gain, there’s another not-so-appetizing side effect you should know about. According to a study published in the European Respiratory Journal, eating large amounts of cured meats may increase the risk of hospital readmission for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

What is COPD?

COPD is an umbrella term covering multiple diseases that make it difficult to breathe, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. These conditions are primarily caused by long-term exposure to tobacco smoke, air pollution, and other lung irritants. They often lead to hospitalization, especially when COPD patients are exposed to high levels of these irritants. And as it turns out, eating cured meats might be another risk factor for hospital readmission.

The Problem with Cured Meats

The researchers behind the study discovered that individuals with COPD who reported eating large amounts of cured meats were more likely to end up in the hospital than their peers who didn’t eat these foods. They believe that the culprit behind this increased risk is the nitrites used as preservatives and antibacterial agents in cured meats. Nitrites can produce nitrogen species, which have the potential to damage lung tissue.

In addition to nitrites, cured meats are also often high in sodium. Excess sodium intake can lead to fluid retention, which can worsen the shortness of breath typically experienced by those with COPD. This combination of nitrites and sodium makes these meats particularly concerning for individuals with breathing difficulties.

Other Health Risks

Eating large amounts of cured meats doesn’t just pose a risk to those with COPD—it can also negatively impact the health of people without breathing problems. The World Health Organization classifies processed meats, which include cured meats, as a Group 1 carcinogen. This means that there’s strong evidence linking these foods to cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. High consumption of processed meats has also been linked to an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Making Healthier Choices

The news isn’t all bad—there are definitely ways to enjoy cured meats in a healthier manner. Here are a few tips on how to indulge while minimizing the risks:

  1. Opt for lower-sodium alternatives: Look for cured meats that are labeled as low-sodium or reduced-sodium. Just take note that even these options can still be relatively high in sodium, so it’s important to enjoy them in moderation.

  2. Go lean: Choose leaner cuts of cured meats, such as turkey or chicken options, as these can be lower in fat and calories.

  3. Combine with fruits and veggies: Serve your cured meats with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. This will not only balance out the meal’s sodium content, but it will also add vital nutrients, and help you maintain a healthier overall diet.

  4. Limit your portion sizes: It’s all about moderation. Enjoy cured meats as an occasional treat, not a daily staple. This will help you minimize the risks associated with nitrites and high sodium levels.

  5. Explore alternative protein sources: Incorporate other protein sources into your diet, such as lean chicken, turkey, fish, and plant-based options like beans, lentils, and tofu.

The Bottom Line

Cured meats may be delicious, but they also come with a host of health risks—including an increased risk of hospital readmission for individuals with COPD. If you or a loved one suffers from COPD, it’s important to be aware of these risks and take steps to minimize them. By opting for healthier alternatives and practicing moderation, you can still enjoy your favorite cured meats while protecting your lung health and overall well-being.