Should I Still Eat Red & Processed Meat? - Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare

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Published on November 05, 2015

Should I Still Eat Red & Processed Meat?

By Molly Corbett, RD, CD, Dietitian, Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare – All Saints

On October 26, 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report showing that what we eat can surely play a role in our risk of developing cancer. The report placed certain red and processed meats, including bacon and sausages, in the same category as smoking and asbestos for causing cancer.

But is this news really new, and how should you translate these findings as you walk the aisles of your grocery store?

About the Research

Through evaluation of more than 800 different studies of cancer in humans, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) assessed the colorectal cancer risk associated with consuming red and processed meat. The IARC report identified the following:

  • Processed meats fall into Group 1: carcinogenic to humans, or a known cause of cancer in humans.
  • Red meats fall into Group 2A: probably carcinogenic to humans.

The WHO goes on to classify red meat as mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, pork, veal, lamb, mutton, horse and goat, while they detail that processed meat has been “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” Familiar processed meats include, but are not limited to, bacon, hot dogs, ham, sausages, cold cuts, and salami.

Next Steps

Think Amount & Frequency

Even with the newsworthy IARC report, it is not yet fully understood how red and processed meats increase cancer risk. Four compounds of interest include the nitrates and nitrites added to processed meats, the heme iron found in red meats, or the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs) formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures.

The nation’s leading cancer research organization, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), supports the IARC report, and has advised avoiding processed meat as one of their cancer prevention recommendations since 2007, while additionally recommending limiting consumption of red meat to less than 18 oz. per week.

The IARC report found that with every 50-gram portion of processed meat enjoyed daily (approximately 1 small hot dog), ones risk of colorectal cancer increased by about 18%, whereas with every 100-gram portion of red meat eaten daily, ones risk could increase by 17%. 

As you pack tomorrow’s lunch or plan this weekend’s breakfast menu, nutrition experts aren’t saying to never enjoy a hamburger or a slice of perfectly crisp bacon again, but just to keep in mind that the risk is shown to be linked to frequency and amount.

Consider Substitutions

  • Try replacing traditional deli meats with fresh chicken or turkey breast
  • Substitute ground beef in recipes with beans or lentils
  • Reduce your overall portion size of red and processed meats
  • Adopt more of a plant-based diet, highly recommended for cancer prevention by AICR, by shifting your intake to less than 18 oz. per week of red meat, thinking of processed meats as a “special occasion” item, and filling most of your plate with vibrant fruits and vegetables.

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Should I Still Eat Red & Processed Meat?