Are bacon sandwiches taking our breath away?

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Don’t believe the hype: health headlines dissected



Alarming headlines have warned bacon-lovers that too many risky rashers could lead to a life-threatening asthma attack. A study published by The BMJ suggests that eating four or more portions of processed meats a week could worsen asthma symptoms. We know that processed meat has also been compared to smoking when it comes to carcinogenic risk factors, but is it also responsible for extreme breathlessness?



Researchers used information from a study of more than two decades on over 2000 people, their close relatives, and a comparison group from five French cities. They were looking for links between worsened asthma symptom scores after levels of consumed cured meat were measured.

When the study began, around 40% of the participants had previously been diagnosed with asthma. Meanwhile, the control subjects had no history of the condition.

The reported study was based on 971 adults, from whom complete diet information, weight, asthma symptom scores and demographic data were taken. Of the total, 35% were overweight, while 9% were obese. Participants also filled in health and dietary questionnaires, asking them how often they ate 118 foods, including cured meats. Asthma symptoms in the preceding 12 months, such as shortness of breath, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing, were recorded and scored from zero to five.

Taking other factors that may influence the asthma symptom score – such as smoking and physical activity – into account, the scientists analysed the data to assess any links between the consumption of processed meats, and body mass index.



Participants were analysed for an average of seven years, after which time just over half (53%) showed the same asthma symptom score and 27% demonstrated improved scores. Asthma symptom scores were worse in 20% of study subjects.

The data showed that tucking into processed meat at least four times a week increased the risk of worse asthma symptom scores by 76% – though some of this could be explained by the link between cured meat consumption and existing high BMI.



The researchers said: “While the indirect effect mediated through BMI accounted for only 14% of this association, the direct effect explained a greater proportion, suggesting a deleterious role of cured meat independent of BMI”; meaning that a higher intake of cured meat was associated with worsening asthma symptoms over time, though not with doubling the risk, as some headlines claimed. It’s difficult to prove that just one food can cause asthma symptoms, and food is just one factor in the mix of asthma symptoms risk.


What the press said:

“Regularly indulging in a bacon sandwich doubles the risk of an asthma attack” The Sun

“Processed meat ‘could be bad for asthma’” BBC News

“Four ham sandwiches a week could almost double risk of asthma attack” The Telegraph   


Three little pigs

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