Meat and Cancer Risk: A Practical Guide

A review of the hype:

In 2015, The International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC], part of the World Health Organization [WHO] added processed meats to their Group I category: Carcinogenic to Humans. While not totally unexpected, this left many of us wondering how to think about this information in the context of our lives and our grocery shopping.

What is processed meat? Any meat (not just red meat) that isn’t fresh. This can include sausages, hot dogs, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat, meat sauce, deli meats, bacon, smoked fish, etc.

The way a meat is cured appears to make 
no difference when it comes to cancer risk.
This means products labeled nitrate-free
are not functionally different–
they are still processed meats.

It is unclear why there is a difference between processed meat and other meat, but laboratory studies seem to support population data: Enough to suggest a causal relationship between processed meat intake and incidence of colon cancer.

The WHO states that eating processed meats in moderation is advised in order to reduce the risk of colon cancer.

OK, so, how might we use this information?

First, choose priorities. Maybe you are not prepared to make any changes to your diet at this time, all scientific evidence aside. Maybe you are in a position to consider small changes that may decrease your risk of disease. In either case, you probably still want a hot dog if you find yourself at Fenway Park this summer. Or maybe your weekly bagel and lox is a Sunday morning staple that you cannot live without. Great—keep your favorite, most satisfying foods and don’t worry about occasional indulgences.

However, if you have a turkey sandwich every day because it is easy and you’re not sure what else to do, maybe consider a new lunch choice two or three days a week. Egg and chicken salad, hummus or pesto with cheese and veggies—the internet has millions of recipes to explore.

If you eat processed meat, aim for less than 50 grams a day,
which is equivalent to 2 slices of bacon or deli meat.

This is less than most of us put in a sandwich, so keep in mind that even a small adjustment in portion size may have positive impacts on health. Maybe eat half a sandwich and add a salad, or bump up the veggies and hummus alongside your turkey. Adding extra vegetables, beans, or healthy carbohydrates to any meal may even lead to other unintended positive outcomes. Small steps can have a big impact when they are compounded over days, weeks, and years.

That being said, it is also helpful to zoom out when talking about food choices. We know that eating refined carbohydrates like bread, crackers, cookies, and pasta is not healthful, either: Not only do heart disease risk factors decrease when refined carbohydrates are replaced by healthy fats, but these foods often take the place of legumes, fruits, and vegetables… not only are excess carbs unhealthy, but you’re more likely to miss out on the good stuff. How does this relate to processed meat? Don’t replace a turkey sandwich with a slice of pizza. Meat is high in protein and low in carbs, so it can help create a balanced diet. 

Consider the big picture of your diet
before making any drastic changes. 
Meat can help balance carbs, when eaten in moderation.

And, we know that other things are worse for you than processed meat. Smoking is more likely to cause cancer than processed meat, although they are both strongly linked to cancer. If you smoke, are struggling with a soda habit, or frequently snack on simple carbohydrates like chips and cookies, there may be opportunities to improve your lifestyle in many ways.

A diet containing fatty fish, lean proteins, low fat dairy, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains contributes to health and can help prevent disease. Consider which changes, if any, can have the greatest positive impact on your health and start there. Trying to change many things at once is a recipe for failure, though, so really start with one. Reduce the amount of deli meat in your sandwich, or add one piece of fruit a day, or aim to fill half your plate with vegetables, or include 10 minutes of walking in your lunch break, or cut down by 1 cigarette a day.

The jury is still out on red meat in general:

The problem? Laboratory studies cannot confirm a mechanism by which red meat might cause cancer, so we are left with population data. Although there is a long history of epidemiological studies in which people who eat red meat are more likely to get cancer, there is no way to show that one causes the other. Such studies cannot control for dietary variables, such as whether meat eaters are more likely to eat potato chips and ice cream or drink soda. In addition, most information is self-reported and may not be accurate. These studies do not take into account how meat is prepared, the quality of meat, or the difference between red meat animals. Perhaps the most confusing piece is that most studies do not differentiate between processed red meat and fresh red meat. As we know that processed red meat can raise cancer risk, much of the data may be skewed in this direction.

There is some evidence that dry, high-heat methods are more likely to cause carcinogenic compounds during cooking. One sound piece of advice is to avoid charring when grilling, frying, or broiling meat.

One more thing: Reducing meat consumption may be imperative for the health of the planet. Researchers estimate that if diets do not change over the next thirty years, resources related to raising meat will account for two degrees of global warming, regardless of any changes in energy use or emissions from other sources.


Photo by Benjamin Faust on Unsplash (meat and knife)

Photo by Eaters Collective on Unsplash (sandwich)


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