The Link Between Red Meat and Cancer: What You Need to Know
Scientific evidence has been accumulating for decades that colon cancer is more common among people who eat the most red meat and processed meat.
If you’re a meat lover, you’ve probably heard the news by now: A report published in The Lancet Oncology on Monday says that processed meats, like hot dogs, ham and sausage, cause colon cancer and that red meat probably causes the disease.
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The link between certain types of meat and some forms of cancer, particularly colon cancer, isn’t new. Scientific evidence has been accumulating for decades that colon cancer is more common among people who eat the most red meat and processed meat.
Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. Processed meat is meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting, or adding chemical preservatives. Examples of processed meat include bacon, ham, sausage and hot dogs.
What’s making headlines right now is that the pronouncement comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a well-known and respected agency of the World Health Organization. The IARC evaluated more than 800 studies that looked at the association of cancer with eating processed meat or red meat. The studies looked at more than a dozen types of cancer in populations with diverse diets over the past 20 years.
The agency made no specific dietary recommendations and said it did not have enough data to define how much processed meat is too dangerous. But it said the risk rises with the amount consumed — each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
Experts have long warned of the dangers of certain chemicals used to cure meat, such as nitrites and nitrates, which the body converts into cancer-causing compounds.
The evidence so far suggests that it’s probably the processing of the meat, or chemicals naturally present within it, that increases cancer risk, says Alok Khorana, MD, Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program at Cleveland Clinic.
“Processed meats fall into the same category that cigarette smoking does with lung cancer,” Dr. Khorana says. “In other words, it’s an item that causes cancer at some point in the future if you consume high amounts.”
It’s important to know that this classification merely shows the level of confidence the IARC has in its belief that processed meat causes cancer, Dr. Khorana says — not how much cancer that processed meat causes or how potent a carcinogen it is. And so, hot dogs are not equally as dangerous as cigarettes — the two only share a confirmed link to cancer, in the IARC’s opinion.
The IARC classified red meat as “probably” carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. This was based on limited evidence that eating red meat causes cancer in humans and strong evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect, Dr. Khorana says. Previous studies also have shown that grilling or smoking meat can create suspected carcinogens.
While the IARC said red meat contains some important nutrients, it still noted that red meat has an established link to colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers.
Research has shown that what you eat can play a large role in your risk for developing colorectal cancer. For example, one recent study showed that a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables and a moderate amount of fish appears to offer the most protection against developing colorectal cancer.
The study showed a pesco-vegetarian diet — dominated by fruits and vegetables and including a moderate amount of fish — is associated with a 45 percent reduced risk for colorectal cancers compared to people whose diets include meat. A good example of a pesco-vegetarian diet is the Mediterranean diet, Dr. Khorana says.
“A healthy diet is good for your overall outcomes and your cardiovascular health. It turns out now that it’s also good for preventing cancer,” Dr. Khorana says.
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