Well, this was a ‘hot’ news day in cancer nutrition world. You’d think my phone would be ringing off the hook with all the reporters wanting my comment! I guess they just read my Facebook page, and therefore…. they know my comment.
Anyway, when I first started seeing the headlines on TV, radio and social media, here’s what I was thinking:
Duh?!? We already knew this!
The American Institute for Cancer Research has had this information in their Expert Reports for years. The IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) report may be new, but the evidence showing a link between red meats, processed meats, and colorectal cancer is not news. Of course, it’s my job to know this, so I guess I can understand if it’s new to someone else.
What I am finding through conversations is that consumers are reading the headlines, and reacting in one of two ways.
- I’m never eating meat again.
- I don’t care how bad it is, bacon makes me happy so I’m going to eat it anyway.
Guess what friends? There’s a middle ground. It’s based on facts and sprinkled with a little common sense!!
What You Need to Know
First, it’s important to know the definitions.
- Processed meat has been cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in some way. Included in this group are things like cold cut sandwich meats, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, salami, and pepperoni. Essentially it means it has been processed by adding something to it. Grinding or mincing doesn’t make it a ‘processed meat.’
- Red meat is beef, lamb and pork. No…. pork is not the other “white meat.” That is what we call a marketing campaign. Guess what? Marketing often means lies. Let that be a life lesson. 😛
Next, understand the risk.
- Processed meat was ranked by the IARC as a class 1 carcinogen. Tobacco is also ranked as a class 1 carcinogen. So are alcoholic drinks, outdoor air pollution and UV radiation, but I don’t see people giving up their wine or moving to the countryside!
- Red meat was ranked by the IARC as a class 2A carcinogen.
Being ranked is only part of the story. The other part is how much you are exposed to the carcinogen. Most smokers expose their body to tobacco multiple times a day. When it comes to processed meat, how often you have it matters.
How much is too much?
This particular study found that those who ate the most processed meat had around a 17 percent higher risk of developing bowel cancer, compared to those who ate the least. So the recommendation is to consume 70g or less of red/processed meat. Check out this infographic on how much meat is in a typical meal:
The general guideline many health agencies use is the following:
- 18 ounces a week or less of red meat. If you eat red meat once a week or less, you will not exceed this.
- Avoid processed meat. Even with the recommendation to “avoid,” I usually tell my clients that consuming something 3 times a year isn’t going to add up.
But PLEASE don’t give your kids hot dogs every day. And having a sandwich every day made with ham is not a habit I would recommend!
The Bottom Line:
Here is a good illustration from a very wise oncology dietitian, Suzanne Dixon. Suzanne has a Master’s degree in epidemiology (i.e. she knows how to interpret studies!!). Check out Suzanne’s website here!
“We all engage in ‘pro-cancer’ and ‘anti-cancer’ behaviors all the time, and it helps to keep it in perspective. We have a “health bank account,” and we constantly make deposits (improve health) and withdrawals (not so good for health). I exercised today… that’s a deposit. I had two glasses of wine with dinner… that’s a withdrawal. I ate a 12-ounce t-bone steak… that’s a withdrawal. I don’t smoke and I maintain a healthy body weight… both are very important deposits. There’s no way anyone can consistently make ONLY deposits and take NO withdrawals.” You’ve got to find your balance!
Here’s my take home: This report on processed meat and red meat influencing cancer really isn’t new information, although it has certainly received a lot of coverage! If you consume processed/red meats in moderation, it’s a non-issue. More important, is whether you are actually including the foods daily to help your body function at it’s best – fruits, veggies, beans, nuts and whole grains.
Let’s get on with living!
PS – want to read more on this without the sensationalized headlines? Here are two great articles!
Processed meat and cancer – what you need to know
Red Meat, Bacon, Processed Meats and Cancer: Back in the News
I have a question regarding this study and the red meat aspect. What I don’t see in this is whether or not the TYPE of red meat is mentioned in the study. By that I mean is the red meat tested indicative of the ‘typcial’ red meat found in grocery stores (corn-fed, hormone and antibiotics given, processed the ‘normal’ way), or are they including grass-fed, organically raised beef cattle? I do believe that meat is not bad if raised properly and devoid of the chemicals mankind has created to increase production at the cost of quality and certainly the nutrition and safety of the end product. Has any study attempted to test the ‘good’ red meat vs. the ‘bad’ red meat? In all the reading I’ve done on this subject, there is nobody that makes this distinction. Food (literally) for thought…..
Julie Lanford MPH, RD, CSO, LDN says
How you raise the meat does not affect whether or not it is carcinogenic. Both conventional, feedlot meat and grass fed organic meat are probable carcinogens. And once you process either of these into “processed meat,” they are definitive carcinogens, per WHO and other large health/research agencies.