Is Your Sandwich Making You Older?

Processed meats might be aging you at the cellular level.

a hand holds up a salami sandwich on white bread

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Updated on March 4, 2022

It may seem like baloney, but it turns out that the type of sandwich you eat each day could be making you age faster.

In a 2008 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that people who ate the highest amount of processed meat—think salami, pressed ham, or pastrami—showed the greatest wear and tear in a key marker of cellular aging.

Telltale telomeres
To be specific, the people who ate the most processed meat had the shortest telomeres. Telomeres are protective coverings that cap off the ends of your DNA strands. The shorter they get, the older your body is on a cellular level—and the wider the door opens for chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.

The researchers concluded that the telomeres of the processed-meat lovers showed about 3.4 extra years of aging compared with those who ate the least processed meat. A 2016 study of Native Americans published in Journal of Nutrition also linked eating processed meats to shorter telomeres.

The good news is that researchers have also found that eating more fruits and vegetables goes hand-in-hand with longer—and therefore younger and healthier—telomeres.

In a 2021 study published in Nutrients, researchers asked over 5,000 adults in the United States about their fruit and vegetable intake over the previous 24 hours, with the assumption that that would be a rough estimate of their usual habits. They also measured the volunteers’ telomeres. The more produce people had eaten, the longer their telomeres. Key exceptions: Telomere length didn’t correspond to potato or bean intake.

And a small but encouraging 2013 study of men with prostate cancer published in Lancet Oncology suggested that other lifestyle changes can actually lengthen telomeres. After three months of a healthy diet, 30 minutes of exercise and 60 minutes of yoga or meditation a day, and weekly support groups, participants’ telomeres got 10 percent longer. To make sure these findings hold true, larger, randomized controlled trials are needed to confirm the results.

A processing problem
What's so bad about processed meats? They tend to be packed with saturated fat, sodium, cholesterol, nitrates, and nitrites, some of which may be associated with telomere-shortening inflammation. Other studies have linked processed meat to higher risks of heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.

So when it comes to fixing a sandwich that won’t shave years off your life, the healthiest approach is to reach for meats that are lean, skinless, and whole, such as sliced whole turkey or chicken breast. Better still for optimal health, load your bread (whole grain, of course) with all-veggie ingredients.

Article sources open article sources

Nettleton JA, Diez-Roux A, Jenny NS, Fitzpatrick AL, Jacobs DR Jr. Dietary patterns, food groups, and telomere length in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;88(5):1405-1412.
Fretts AM, Howard BV, Siscovick DS, et al. Processed Meat, but Not Unprocessed Red Meat, Is Inversely Associated with Leukocyte Telomere Length in the Strong Heart Family Study. J Nutr. 2016;146(10):2013-2018.
Tucker LA. Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Telomere Length in a Random Sample of 5448 U.S. Adults. Nutrients. 2021;13(5):1415. Published 2021 Apr 23.
Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, et al. Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2013;14(11):1112-1120.
Elizabeth Fernandez. Lifestyle Changes May Lengthen Telomeres, A Measure of Cell Aging. UCSF. September 16, 2013.
Micha R, Wallace SK, Mozaffarian D. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of incident coronary heart disease, stroke, and diabetes mellitus: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Circulation. 2010;121(21):2271-2283.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Eating processed meats, but not unprocessed red meats, may raise risk of heart disease and diabetes. May 17, 2010.
Danielle Underferth. Processed meat and cancer: What you need to know. MD Anderson Cancer Center. February 2016.
Karimi B, Nabizadeh R, Yunesian M, Mehdipour P, Rastkari N, Aghaie A. Foods, Dietary Patterns and Occupational Class and Leukocyte Telomere Length in the Male Population. Am J Mens Health. 2018;12(2):479-492.

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