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From bad to wurst: Heavy meat eaters living dangerously, experts say

Eating red meat and processed meat such as sausage has widely been associated with increased health risks. But traditional diets in many parts of the world are still high in meat.

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In Germany, for example, many people would consider it perfectly acceptable to have a salami sandwich for breakfast, spaghetti Bolognese for lunch and a sausage salad for supper.

"The daily per capita consumption of meat products in Germany is over 100 grams," notes Dr Christian Sina, director of the Institute of Nutritional Medicine at Schleswig-Holstein University Hospital. "This exceeds experts' recommendations."

Sina recommends eating meat products in moderation, and not every day, adding, "The dose makes the poison."

It's important to make a distinction between red and white meat, says Silke Restemeyer, a nutritionist at the German Nutrition Society (DGE). Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb and goat, for example. White meat is poultry such as chicken or turkey.

"Eating a lot of red meat and sausage increases your risk of colon cancer," Restemeyer says. "In the light of current scientific knowledge, there's no association between white meat and cancer, however."

Sina takes a somewhat different view. "We should stop making a general distinction between red and white meat with regard to health," he argues. "What appears to be more important is the part of the animal's body the meat comes from, and how it's prepared."

Many meat products, such as salami and smoked sausage, are high in fat. And they contain a lot of saturated fatty acids and cholesterol, which can encourage lipid metabolism disorders, Restemeyer says.

"It's not only the amount of fat in sausage that matters, but how much of it someone can actually digest and absorb," Sina adds.

Restemeyer advises always selecting low-fat varieties of meat and sausage, such as "a top or bottom round, fillet or haunch" of meat, and "poultry sausage, sliced roast meat, cold meat in aspic and sliced ham not rimmed with fat."

A gentle manner of preparation with little fat is ideal, she says, since "this preserves the taste and spares the nutrients." She recommends grilling, braising in vegetable stock or cooking in an oven.

Besides the kind of meat and manner of preparation, its origin and quality also play a role. "There's increasing evidence that we should focus more on the conditions the animals are kept in, and particularly on what they're fed, since these factors can influence meat quality as regards the nutrients important to us," Sina points out.

As a component of a mixed diet, meat has pluses along with minuses. It contains essential nutrients such as protein, B vitamins including vitamin B12, iron, selenium and zinc. "Nevertheless, adults shouldn't consume more than 300 to 600 grams of meat and sausage per week," Restemeyer says.

Sina, for his part, is critical of the 300-to-600-gram recommendation. "These figures can only serve as a benchmark," he says. "Meaningful studies are in short supply. What's important is how our body reacts to food. Just because something's good for one person doesn't mean it's good for another."