MEAT AND CANCER: WHAT ARE THE FACTS?

If the headlines on the link between meat and cancer grabbed your attention, you may be wondering how it impacts the way you eat. Let’s dive in to understand what the evidence means.


BY: ANNE DANAHY, MS, RD

If this is the year you’ve decided to eat less meat and more plants – good for you! You’re in for many health benefits, including better heart health, an improved mood, and a reduced risk of chronic diseases, especially cancer.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the U.S., and no doubt most of us would like to do whatever we can to help prevent it. Although there is still so much unknown about what triggers the mutations that cause cells to become cancerous, it’s thought that diet may play a role in as many as 35% of cancers. Researchers also have suspicions about the role that food additives and food processing may have on the development of cancer.

However, most data on diet and cancer risk is collected through epidemiological, or population studies, which can only show an association between certain factors, not a direct cause-and-effect. However, there is enough evidence from two important associations, that anyone who wants to reduce their risk of cancer (and most chronic diseases) should take note of:

Eat more colorful fruits and vegetables, and less red and processed meat.

Scientists have known about the benefits of fruits and vegetables for a long time. Their bright colors come from antioxidant compounds that protect cells from damage, and eating more of them is always on the top of the list when it comes to reducing cancer risk. The relationship between meat, or animal proteins and cancer has been less clear, because there are both risks as well as nutritional benefits. As a consumer, you’re probably caught between messages about the benefits of eating more protein as you age, and limiting meat because it’s linked to colon cancer.   

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an agency of the World Health Organization (WHO) recently released newer guidelines on meat. While meat can still have a place in a healthy diet, you may want to rethink how often you eat some popular breakfast and deli choices. Here’s what they determined after reviewing more than 800 studies on meat and cancer.

1. Limit processed meats.

Processed meats (like bacon, sausages, jerky, hot dogs and cold cuts like ham or corned beef) are of the greatest concern to cancer risk. IARC has classified them as “carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” IARC also considers processed meats a group 1 carcinogen, along with cigarette smoke and asbestos, but it’s important to note that group 1 refers only to the strength of the research evidence, NOT the level of risk. Studies show eating processed meat is linked to mainly colon cancer, but there is some evidence that it may be linked to stomach cancer as well.

2. How much makes a difference.

As with anything related to diet and health, it’s the dose that makes the poison. In the case of processed meat, the research reviewed shows that processed meat is associated with small increases in the risk of cancer, but that risk also grows with the amount of meat consumed. Every 50-gram portion (about 4 strips of bacon, or 1 hot dog) of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colon cancer by about 18%.

3. What about red meat?

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends avoiding processed meats altogether, and limiting red meat to less than 18 ounces of cooked meat each week. However, it’s important to note that the evidence about red meat (which includes beef, veal, pork, lamb and goat), and cancer is not as clear.

While there appears to be a positive association, there’s not enough strong evidence to support a definite effect and why red meat is listed as “probably carcinogenic”. The strongest risk appears to be for colon cancer, but there is also research that points to a link to prostate and pancreatic cancer as well. Again, the amount you eat is important, and some studies suggest that the risk of colon cancer might increase 17% for every 100-gram portion of red meat eaten daily.

Another interesting point? The IARC findings only apply to red and processed meats. No link to cancer has been seen from eating poultry or fish.

So what’s the bottom line for meat eaters?

The advice to eat everything in moderation holds especially true in the case of meat, and going towards a more plant-based lifestyle can also help you balance your plate.

Make it a goal to mix up the protein on your plate with some chicken, fish, or eggs a few times each week, and make sure you balance your plate with more cancer-protective colorful vegetables. A good half plate at each meal will do the job, and allow you to enjoy a more plant-based lifestyle without going full-on vegetarian or vegan.

Feeling especially motivated to cut back on meat? Join the Meatless Monday movement and commit to at least one day each week without any meat. It’s great for your health, and easier than you might think – check out some of the recipes and tips on their website.

HEADER IMAGE: MARKUS SPISKE

Anne Danahy, MS, RD is a Scottsdale-AZ-based registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant specializing in women’s health and healthy aging. Anne is passionate about teaching people how to make the science of nutrition more delicious on their plates. Visit her at Craving Something Healthy.

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