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Cancer Risks of Red and Processed Meat

Can a lunchmeat sandwich kill you?
Is your sandwich meat deadly?

The report landed like a bombshell. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organization (WHO) analyzed over 800 studies. They concluded that, "consumption of processed meat [was] carcinogenic to humans" and  that, "...red meat [was] probably carcinogenic to humans."

In a short 1,250-word summary report, they moved processed meats into (Group 1) "carcinogenic to humans," the same category as asbestos and smoking. Red meats were put into (Group 2A), "probably carcinogenic to humans."

What exactly does that mean for someone who enjoys meat? Especially red meat and processed meats? Let's break down what the report says and put the risks into perspective.

Understand the types of meat the report talks about. When the researchers mention red meat, they're referring to "mammalian muscle meat." That's beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat meat. It also includes minced or frozen meat that's typically eaten after being cooked.

Processed is referring any meats that are changed by curing, fermentation, salting, smoking or "other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation." While the report states that "most processed meats contain pork or beef" it refers to any meats that go through treatment, including poultry or "meat byproducts such as blood."

This is going to sound obvious but, I don't know anybody who's scarfing down bacon that thinks it's a healthy food. We've also known for years that higher fat meats, like many red meats, aren't good for you if eaten daily. Processed meats have been targets for years with their high levels of sodium nitrites, another carcinogenic agent. Nobody should be surprised at the results of the WHO Analysis.

Looking deeper at the data, understand that researchers were looking specifically at cancer of the colon or rectum. What isn't mentioned are the other factors that contributed to disease progression.

  • Were the people who ate these foods overweight? We know that the heavier you are, the greater your risk of breast, colon and endometrial cancer.
  • Were they active or sedentary? We know that sedentary people are at greater risk for almost all disease types.
  • Did the people in the studies have other habits, along with red or processed meat consumption that increased their risk? For example, people who drink alcohol tend to smoke more, leading to more cases of lung cancer. The drinking doesn't cause lung cancer directly, but it's an indicator of other harmful habits that do.

The numbers are remarkably low for all the concerns the report has generated. Worldwide the cancer deaths per year from diets high in processed meat is estimated around 34,000. Compare that with smoking, which according to WHO, "kills nearly 6 million people and causes hundreds of billions of dollars of economic damage worldwide each year." Excess alcohol consumption is responsible for 3.3 million deaths every year and 3.7 million people died in 2012 from air pollution.

Here's how to deal with the problem. If you're really worried about your health, stop smoking, get your weight down to a healthy number, exercise at least three times a week and limit the alcohol you drink. Any of those things will make a far more dramatic impact on how long you'll live.

Once you've got those things under control, take a look at your total meat consumption. The WHO report said there was a 17% increased risk for people who ate 100 grams (about 1/4 of a pound) a day and an 18% increase for people who ate 50 grams (about 1/8 of a pound) of processed meats daily.

If you're eating that much, look at ways to cut back. Switch to poultry, limit your red meat consumption to an eighth of a pound a day or less and processed meats to no more than a couple days a week. Then start swapping out meat for vegetables. Experiment with "Meatless Monday" and try some vegetarian versions of recipes once in a while. Your body will thank you.

You can read the full text of the report by Clicking Here: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)00444-1/fulltext

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