Springtime is when people everywhere start dusting off their backyard grills and filling them with burgers and hot dogs. But before you reach for a hot dog, consider new research from the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.
They’ve found what they call a “hot dog-brain” connection, a link between the consumption of hot dogs and other processed meats and reduced brain function and memory loss.
And I’m going to reveal one of the findings right now because it’s such a surprise: even tiny amounts of processed meat appear to cause a shocking increase in dementia risk. A single piece of bacon, it seems, is not a harmless pleasure.
While health and longevity researchers have long pointed to hot dogs and other processed meats as damaging to the body, this is the first large-scale study of people over time where researchers looked at the link between certain types of meat, the amount consumed, and the risk of dementia.
Largest Study of its Kind
Researchers used data collected between 2006 and 2010 as part of the U.K. Biobank, a database containing in-depth genetic and health information from half a million people across the United Kingdom, aged 40 to 69 years.1
Researchers found 2,896 cases of dementia developed over an average of eight years of follow up. In addition some interesting trends emerged.
First of all, researchers found that the people who developed dementia were generally older, less financially secure, less educated, more likely to smoke and less physically active.
And not surprisingly, this group was more likely to have stroke and dementia in their family medical history. They were also more likely to be carriers of a gene associated with dementia.
Plus, this group contained more overweight males who ate a diet with higher levels of protein and fat (including saturated fat) and fewer vegetables and fruits compared to those participants of the same age who did not develop dementia.
Processed Meat Dramatically Increases Dementia Risk
When researchers parsed out the numbers, they discovered that consuming even a small amount of processed meat is linked to dementia. For example, they found that eating one 25 gram (.88 ounce) serving of processed meat a day– a single slice of bacon or half a hot dog– is associated with a 44 percent increased risk of developing the disease.
Conversely, their findings show that all red meat isn’t created equal. In fact, eating some unprocessed red meat, such as beef, pork or veal, could be protective, as those who consumed 50 grams (1.7 ounces) a day were 19 percent less likely to develop dementia.
The lead researcher, Huifeng Zhang, explained the significance of the study, saying, “Worldwide, the prevalence of dementia is increasing and diet as a modifiable factor could play a role.
“Our research adds to the growing body of evidence linking processed meat consumption to increased risk of a range of non-transmissible diseases.”
The research was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.2
It’s important to point out that this was an observational study using self-reported data, so it should be taken with a grain of salt. While there’s no direct scientific evidence that eating processed meats causes dementia, a clear pattern has certainly emerged. What’s more, other research backs up these findings.
Health Dangers of Processed Foods
A study looking at the health impacts of all processed foods, not just meat, was recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.3
Researchers found the consumption of ultra-processed foods corresponded with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and death.
For study purposes, ultra-processed foods were defined as foods that underwent several rounds of processing, and typically contained food additives such as refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers, thickening agents, and colorants.
And what’s at the top of the ultra-processed food list? Processed meat and sugary beverages, which provide more than half– 58 percent– of daily calories in the average American diet.
Dr. Niyati Parekh, of New York University’s School of Global Public Health in New York City, suggests this is a public health crisis. She says the research shows an urgent need for population-wide strategies to combat consumption of these foods, including taxation on these foods and recommendations regarding processing levels in national dietary guidelines.
While I don’t see our government imposing stronger regulations on processed food manufacturers any time soon, you’re still in charge of what you put in your body.
We’ve already seen study after study showing that processed foods can damage memory, mood and so much more by triggering chronic inflammation in the body. Additionally, high fructose corn syrup (found in soft drinks and other processed foods) also wreaks havoc on your health.4
My advice? Build your daily diet around healthy whole grains, fruits, vegetables and lean protein. Make processed foods a once in a blue moon treat — if ever — and your brain and body will thank you.
- J Am Coll Cardiol. 2021 Mar, 77 (12) 1520–1531