Confirmed: Processed and Red Meats Are Linked to Cancer
A sausage, egg and cheese sandwich for breakfast. Bacon, lettuce and tomato on a roll for lunch. A thick T-bone steak for dinner. Americans, for the most part, love meat. And, many Americans do not consider a meal complete without some sort of meat on their plate. While it is true that meat products do provide a tremendous amount of protein and essential nutrients, new research has found that your diet high in meat may be causing more harm than just a few clogged arteries.
If you have turned on your computer or smartphone this week, you have probably read the news and followup Q&A from the the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) that processed and red meats may be linked to more than a dozen types of cancer.
The report made two essential conclusions. Processed meat is carcinogenic and red meat is probably carcinogenic.
Here is what you need to know:
Processed Meat is Carcinogenic
Yes, you read that right: processed meat is carcinogenic to humans. In fact, processed meat has been grouped in the same cancer risk category as tobacco smoking and asbestos, but that does not mean that they are equally as dangerous. There is risk of developing cancers of the colon and stomach; however, that risk increases as your consumption increases. It is estimated that 34,000 cancer deaths each year are linked to a diet that is high in processed meat.
34,000 cancer deaths each year are linked to a diet that is high in processed meat.
If you really think about the manufacturing process for processed meat, including sausage, taylor ham, hot dogs and beloved bacon, the news shouldn’t surprise you. Processed meats are those that have undergone a transformation through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking and a variety of other processes that are intended to enhance flavor and improve preservation timetables. And it is during this processing stage that cancer-causing chemicals can form.
If you eat just 50 grams (or 1.7 ounces) of processed meat daily, you can increase your risk of colon cancer by 18%. A typical slice of bacon (not thick cut) is about an ounce, so just two in a single day and you have exceeded the above figures. And, who sticks with just one or two slices of bacon anyway? Even turkey bacon cannot be a replacement here; while it has less fat, it remains a highly processed food.
The key here is moderation. Or better yet, completely cut out processed meat and cut your risk to 0%. What you need to do is weigh the risk/benefits of eating that slice of bacon, and determine for yourself if the juice is really worth the squeeze.
Red Meat is Probably Carcinogenic
Red meat, defined as all mammalian muscle meat – beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat – is also probably carcinogenic to humans, so eat with caution, if at all. There is strong evidence supporting a link to cancer, including cancers of the colon, pancreas and prostate. What “probably carcinogenic to humans” means is that there is a positive association between exposure to red meat and cancer, but that other explanations have not been ruled out. The Global Burden of Disease project did find that diets high in red meat could be responsible for as many as 50,000 cancer cases annually.
Just like everything else that you consume, moderation is key. The more red or processed meats that you eat, the more your risk of cancer increases. If you eat just 100 grams (or 3.5 ounces) of red meat daily, you can increase your risk of colon cancer by 17%. That portion of meat would be about a size of a deck of cards or equal to two McDonald’s hamburgers in a single day. If you are going to eat red meat, make sure to keep the portion size small and balance your dish with healthy grains and vegetables. Also, if you must eat red meat, choose meat in their true states – steaks, chops, legs, thighs, etc. – because they are unadulterated and do not contain unknown fillers that can create a whole new level of health risks.
Cancer aside, a diet high in processed and red meat is associated with high intake of fat and sodium and is linked to cardiovascular disease and obesity, as well as increased risks of death from heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses. Your healthiest diet would be one with lean proteins, such as poultry or fish, and plenty of unprocessed foods, such as plant-based sources.
Become informed. Do your research, and determine what is best for you to live a healthy lifestyle that you can maintain.
If a healthy lifestyle includes a hamburger and a hot dog every so often at a family cookout, that’s fine. Just know that there is a correlation between high-temperature cooking or when the meat is in direct contact with a flame, such as grilling or pan frying, and an increased amount of cancer-causing chemicals in the meat.
If a healthy lifestyle for you means a diet free from processed meat and red meat, that’s even better. Ultimately, it is up to you to determine what is best for your health and well being.
For a society that has been encouraged by health experts and doctors to eat meat 4-5 times per week for adequate iron and nutrient levels, reports like the one just released by the World Health Organization may create a paramount shift in the world’s diets from this day forward. The world is already changing as the first vegan supermarket is slated to open in Portland, Oregon sometime next year. You can expect additional shifts toward a vegetarian and vegan diet in years to come, as health experts continue to research the risks associated with the food we eat.
Do these findings change the way you think about processed and red meat? Will you continue to eat these meats or are you going to make a change to your diet? Please share your thoughts below and keep the conversation going!