Is Ham Healthy?

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. Surprised? Read on to learn more about the health effects of this pork product.

Ham Nutrition Facts

Ham is a type of red meat that typically includes preservatives to sustain it for a longer time than normal. Because of the ways in which ham is processed, it has some health benefits and disadvantages. Among those, ham:

  • Is a good source of nutrients
  • May increase the risk of cancer and heart disease
  • Can affect life expectancy
  • Takes a toll on the environment

Ham Nutrition

Most ham in the US 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, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). While this process reduces bacterial growth and enhances the pork's flavor, it also changes the nutritional content and classifies ham as processed meat.

According to the USDA, 3.5 ounces of cooked ham contains 139 calories, 5 grams of fat, 22 grams of protein, and 1 gram of carbohydrates. The same amount, which is about five thin slices, also has 1290 milligrams of sodium—that's over half of your recommended daily value, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tells us.

Good Source of Nutrients

Ham has a few standout nutrients including 28 micrograms of selenium, according to the USDA. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for selenium is 55 micrograms for most adults, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Selenium plays an important role in thyroid function and in protecting cells from damage and infections.

Additionally, ham is a good source of B vitamins. There are 0.56 milligrams of thiamin (vitamin B1) in 3.5 ounces of ham, according to the USDA. The RDA for thiamin is about 1.2 for most adults, said the NIH. Thiamine assists in the growth and development of cells.

Ham has a good amount of niacin (vitamin B3), offering 5.2 mg of the 14 mg RDA for adults, as per the NIH. Niacin helps your body turn food into energy.

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

Ham contains a healthy amount of phosphorous too. In 3.5 ounces of ham, there is 247 mg of phosphorous, over a third of what the NIH recommends daily. Phosphorous is a mineral found in all cells in our body. Mostly though, it's in teeth and bones.

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 the following 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. On the other hand, 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 sentiment, stating that there is strong evidence that eating both 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. For one, smoking and cooking meats at high temperatures can release carcinogenic chemicals, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Additionally, this study from 2019 in Nutrients 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.

For example, a 2020 study published in BMJ 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. This appears to be true in women, too. A study published in 2020 in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that those who ate red meat had a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular 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, according to the American Heart Association.

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, according to a 2019 study cited by the National Institutes of Health.

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, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

May Affect Life Expectancy

Apart from cancer and heart disease, lower consumption of processed red meat may be linked to a longer life expectancy. A study published in 2021 in Nutrition found that the less money spent on processed red meat in a county, the greater the average life expectancy in that county.

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, according to the United Nations.

And, while this may not seem directly related to your health, environmental health and public health are closely linked. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), environmental degradation increases the spread of infectious diseases, water-borne illnesses, and respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. In other words, cutting back on your ham consumption can not only help the climate but your long-term health, too.

A Quick Review

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, says the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

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

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