A study of half a million people across Europe suggests that sausages, ham, bacon and other processed meats appear to increase the risk of dying young.
The study concluded diets high in processed meats were linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer and early deaths.
The researchers, writing in the journal BMC Medicine, said salt and chemicals used to preserve the meat may damage health.
The British Heart Foundation suggested opting for leaner cuts of meat.
The study followed people from 10 European countries for nearly 13 years on average.
It showed people who ate a lot of processed meat were also more likely to smoke, be obese and have other behaviors known to damage health.
However, the researchers said even after those risk factors were accounted for, processed meat still damaged health.
One in every 17 people followed in the study died. However, those eating more than 160 g of processed meat a day – roughly two sausages and a slice of bacon – were 44% more likely to die over a typical follow-up time of 12.7 years than those eating about 20 g.
In total, nearly 10,000 people died from cancer and 5,500 from heart problems.
Prof. Sabine Rohrmann, from the University of Zurich, said: “High meat consumption, especially processed meat, is associated with a less healthy lifestyle.
“But after adjusting for smoking, obesity and other confounders we think there is a risk of eating processed meat.
“Stopping smoking is more important than cutting meat, but I would recommend people reduce their meat intake.”
Sabine Rohrmann said if everyone in the study consumed no more than 20 g of processed meat a day then 3% of the premature deaths could have been prevented.
However a little bit of meat, even processed meat, had health benefits in the study.
Ursula Arens from the British Dietetic Association said that putting fresh meat through a mincer did not make it processed meat.
“Something has been done to it to extend its shelf life, or to change its taste, or to make it more palatable in some way… and this could be a traditional process like curing or salting.”
She said even good quality ham or sausages were still classed as processed meat, while homemade burgers using fresh meat were not.
“For most people there’s no need to cut back on fresh, red meat. For people who have very high intake of red meat – eat lots of red meat every day – there is the recommendation that they should moderate their intake,” she added.
Ursula Arens also confirmed that the study’s finding that processed meat was linked to heart disease was new.
Dr. Rachel Thompson, from the World Cancer Research Fund, said: “This research adds to the body of scientific evidence highlighting the health risks of eating processed meat.
“Our research, published in 2007 and subsequently confirmed in 2011, shows strong evidence that eating processed meat, such as bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami and some sausages, increases the risk of getting bowel cancer.”
The organization said there would be 4,000 fewer cases of bowel cancer if people had less than 10 g a day.
“This is why World Cancer Research Fund recommends people avoid processed meat,” said Dr. Rachel Thompson.