Chances are, amid the furious chomping of your third or fourth hotdog this past holiday weekend, you stopped to consider just how bad those offal-balloons were for your intestines. Because didn’t you hear that red meat — especially encased meat — gets lodged in your colon for years and years? Isn’t that why John Wayne’s autopsy revealed that he died with, like, 40 pounds of impacted feces in his colon?
Let’s start with the good news (besides the John Wayne story being BS): Despite what your born-again vegan friend says, “Nothing ‘sits’ in your colon and rots,” explains David Yamini, a gastroenterologist in L.A. who specializes in digestive diseases. “Your digestive system isn’t a recycling center that carefully separates your food into meat, vegetables, grains and so on and processes them separately.”
Quite the opposite, in fact: Incoming food is chewed into a rough mash before it moves into the stomach for another round of mixing, mashing and marinating, then it travels through the intestine and out through the rectum as a fairly homogenous paste (a sort of fecal version of pink slime).
The widely held myth that meat — and more specifically, encased meat — hangs around longer than other foods probably stems from the fact that high-protein diets tend to cause constipation. But the actual reason this happens is due to the amount of ammonia that forms as a byproduct of digesting meat, which is then filtered out by your kidneys and flushed out when you pee. “This process uses extra water and if you don’t drink more to compensate, the dehydrating effect can result in constipation,” says Yamini. But while you may be backed up briefly, everything should still pass through your system in a couple of days, tops. “In a normal, omnivorous diet, meat — encased or otherwise — will complete its journey through your digestive system in 12 to 48 hours, along with everything else.”
Meat, in fact, isn’t even the food that’s hardest for the body to digest: Some people’s bodies struggle to digest dairy products, while others find that veggies, which are full of complex sugars (beans and cabbage, for example), are the biggest problem. Meat, meanwhile, almost universally gets broken down by the stomach in a matter of four to six hours.
“There’s also the fact that the colon doesn’t really have room for five pounds of any food,” according to Gnolls.org, a site dedicated to information on health and exercise. “Even a pound of meat impacted up in there would land you in the hospital with rectal bleeding and excruciating pain.”
But while the part about encased meat staying in your colon is a myth, the part about it being bad for you is not. According to a 2015 study by cancer researchers at the World Health Organization, “Hot dogs, bacon, cold cuts and other processed meats raise the risk of colon, stomach and other cancers, and red meat probably contributes to the disease, too.” It’s dangerous enough that the WHO’s cancer agency lists processed meats in the same danger category as smoking and asbestos.
This doesn’t mean that salami is automatically as bad for you as cigarettes, but those who eat a lot of processed meats might want to cut back. “For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed,” explained Kurt Straif of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in a 2015 statement.
In other words, encased meats won’t spend years rotting in your colon; instead, they’ll give you cancer (especially if you grill them).