Does red meat or do processed meats really cause cancer? I don’t work in a cancer clinic but I still get asked this question often. What really drives me bonkers is the craziness of the headlines. Are we really one bite of bacon away from an early grave?
The headlines began once the World Health Organization released a monograph of proceedings from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). A meeting of 22 scientists from 10 countries evaluated the consumption of red meat and processed meat from over 800 studies and concluded that it was cancer causing, or carcinogenic.
They found that for every 50 grams of processed meat (which is roughly, less than 3 slices of deli meat or less than 1 sausage) eaten daily, there was an 18% increase in colorectal cancer. We recognize that this risk on the spectrum of risk is relatively small, but it increased with the amount of red meat eaten. Based on the evidence, they classified processed meats (e.g. bacon, sausage, deli meat, hot dogs, biltong, etc.) “as carcinogenic to humans” and red meat “as probably carcinogenic to humans” (Bouvard et al., 2015).
Before you worry that you have to throw away your burgers and Sunday breakfast favourites, let’s take a step back and really look at what this is telling us. It’s not really highlighting much we didn’t already know. In fact, there have been a number of studies published in the past that indicate we should limit red meat, particularly processed meat. A 2007 cancer prevention report recommended to limit intake of animal meat, avoid processed meat and encouraged intake of mostly foods of plant origin (e.g. dried beans, lentils, soy, nuts).
If we take a more balanced approach, we can see that there are obvious health concerns with eating too much of anything – red meat or otherwise. Vegetarians and vegans in the crowd are oft to extol the virtues of meatless eating, and there are plenty of studies to back up their intake of plant-based proteins, like dried beans, lentils, nuts and soy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for eating meat necessarily. Many of us have decreased our red meat consumption. But, I do recognize that giving up meat altogether isn’t always a realistic approach for some people.
In fact, red meat has long been recognized as an excellent source of protein, all our essential amino acids, iron, zinc, selenium and so on. Again, many, if not all of these nutrients are available in plant versions, if you prefer.
So, is bacon really the bad guy here? No. But, realizing that eating more processed meats (compared with other protein options) is linked to higher cancer rates, is significant and shouldn’t be diminished. Cancer patients or survivors may be looking at these headlines with a different lens than those who haven’t travelled the difficult road to recovery and healing. If we can include moderation and mindful choices in our lives, food and otherwise, I think we can minimize the fear (and crazy headlines) and live healthfully (with a little bit of bacon).
Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton KZ, Grosse Y, El Ghissassi F, Benbrahim-Tallaa L, et al. (2015). Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology, Published online 26 October 2015; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(15)00444-1.
Ferguson, L. (2009). Meat and Cancer. Meat Science. 84 (2010) 308–313.
Marsh, K., Zeuschner, C. & Saunders, A. (2012). Health Implications of a Vegetarian Diet: A Review. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine. DOI:10.1177/1559827611425762.
McAfee, A. J. et al. (2009). Red meat consumption: An overview of the risks and benefits. Meat Science. 84(2010), 1–13.
McEvoy, C., Temple, N. & Woodside, J. (2012). Vegetarian diets, low-meat diets and health: a review. Public Health Nutrition. 15(12):2287-94. doi: 10.1017/S1368980012000936.
World Cancer Research Fund. (2007). Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Retrieved from: http://www.aicr.org/assets/docs/pdf/reports/Second_Expert_Report.pdf
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