Ham Nutrition, Health Benefits, and Consumption Guidelines

What to know before you dive into that deli sandwich or holiday meal.

For many people, ham is not only a frequent sandwich or omelet ingredient but also a holiday staple. If you're wondering if it's just as healthy as poultry, the answer is, well, no. That's primarily because ham—which is made by curing pork leg—is a type of processed red meat.

Ham is a type of red meat that typically includes preservatives to sustain it longer than normal. Because of the ways in which ham is processed, it has some health benefits and disadvantages. Read on to learn more about the health effects of this pork product.

Ham Nutrition

Most ham in the United States is cured, which is a process where salt, sodium, potassium nitrate, nitrites, and sometimes sugar, seasonings, phosphates, and other compounds are used to preserve meat. While this process reduces bacterial growth and enhances the pork's flavor, it also changes the nutritional content and classifies ham as processed meat.

Cooked ham (at 3.5 ounces) contains:

  • 139 calories
  • 5 grams of fat
  • 22 grams of protein
  • 1 gram of carbohydrates

The same amount, about five thin slices, also has 1290 milligrams of sodium—that's over half of your recommended daily value (RDV).

Source of Nutrients

Ham has a few standout nutrients including:

  • 28 micrograms of selenium
  • 0.56 milligrams of thiamin (vitamin B1)
  • 5.2 milligrams of vitamin B3 (niacin)
  • 247 milligrams of phosphorous

These nutrients are important to the body in different ways. For instance, selenium plays an important role in thyroid function and in protecting cells from damage and infections, while thiamine assists in the growth and development of cells. Additionally, niacin helps your body turn food into energy.

Ham also contains over a third of the RDV for phosphorous, an essential mineral that makes up your bones and teeth.

Ham also has vitamin B6, which is important for metabolism, and B12, which helps keep your blood and nerve cells healthy.

Despite the benefits, the ultimate reason ham isn't great for your health is because of its classification as both red meat and processed meat, and both are known to cause adverse health effects.

May Increase the Risk of Cancer

Processed meats, like ham, are classified by the International Agency for Cancer Research (IACR) as carcinogenic to humans, meaning that sufficient evidence indicates they cause colorectal cancer. Red meat is classified specifically as a "probable carcinogen" since it has been associated with an increase in colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.

The World Cancer Research Fund echoed this, stating that there is strong evidence that eating red and processed meat is a cause of colorectal cancer. It's best to limit your consumption of red and processed meats to no more than three portions per week.

While it isn't exactly known why processed red meat poses a cancer risk, there are a few theories. One study suggested that the nitrates and nitrites added during the curing process can form cancer-causing compounds in humans.

May Increase the Risk of Heart Disease

Some research suggests that eating red meat—particularly processed red meat like ham—can increase your risk of heart disease.

One study analyzed the diets of over 40,000 people and linked eating processed and/or unprocessed red meat to an increased risk of coronary heart disease. Another study found that those who ate red meat had a higher risk of dying from heart disease.

One potential explanation for the link is: Red meat contains saturated fat, which can raise LDL cholesterol levels—a risk factor for heart disease.

Another possibility is that eating red meat may increase blood levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), a chemical related to heart disease. Those who eat red meat appear to have triple the amount of TMAO in their blood compared to people who stick to white meat or consume no meat.

Finally, 3.5 ounces of ham has over half the recommended sodium intake, and a high sodium diet is known to raise the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

May Affect Life Expectancy

Besides cancer and heart disease, eating less processed red meat may be linked to a longer life expectancy. A study found that the less money spent on processed red meat in a county, the greater the average life expectancy in that county.

Another study concluded that an increased consumption of animal or plant-based foods was associated with a lower risk of death, while an increase in red meat consumption, especially processed meat, led to a higher risk of death.

Takes a Toll on the Environment

Ham and other red meats are one of the most environmentally damaging foods. Raising livestock contributes to 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

And while this may not seem directly related to your health, environmental and public health are closely linked. Environmental degradation increases the risk of:

  • Infectious diseases
  • Water-borne illnesses
  • Respiratory disease
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Negative effects on mental health

In other words, cutting back on your ham consumption can not only help the climate but your long-term health, too.

Is Ham Healthy?

While ham increases the risk of conditions like cancer and heart disease, the truth is that no single food can make or break your health. So if you just can't stomach the idea of saying goodbye to ham forever, consider reserving it for special occasions.

When you consume ham, pair it with foods linked to disease prevention, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and pulses (i.e., beans and lentils). You can also swap some deli meat with fresh poultry, fish, or plant-based high-protein alternatives, such as beans and hummus.

A Quick Review

Ham contains important nutrients such as selenium, phosphorous, and B vitamins, but it also comes with some health risks. Eating ham, along with other red meats, may raise the risk of heart disease and cancer, affect your life expectancy, and take a toll on the environment.

If you think it may be hard to fully cut out red meat from your diet, you may want to try cutting back on the amount you consume or eating plenty of disease-preventing foods along with it.

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