Unpleasant news for fans of bacon-wrapped everything: A new World Health Organization report concluded that eating processed meats such as hotdogs and sausage significantly increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Additionally, red meat — which includes beef, pork, and lamb — is "probably carcinogenic," according to the 22 experts from 10 countries who weighed in on the WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) report.
The IARC noted that each 50-gram portion (about two ounces) of processed meat eaten daily increases cancer risk by 18 percent. What's more, your risk goes up the more you consume, it noted. Processed-meat is a Group 1 carcinogen, a cancer-risk classification shared with cigarette smoking, although the estimated 34,000 annual deaths associated with diets high in processed meats is far fewer than the nearly half a million people a year who die from smoking.
That all sounds pretty bad, but the report should be seen less as a condemnation of meat eating, and more a call for thoughtful assessment of your individual cancer risk. "The WHO report doesn't comment on what or how much you should eat, but they're saying there is a concern," says Thomas Kensler, Ph.D, professor of pharmacology and chemical biology at the University of Pittsburgh. "Colorectal cancer is a major form of cancer in the U.S., and diet is an important risk factor."
Meat consumption is just one of many factors that determine cancer risk; your genes help determine it as well, he adds. So if you're predisposed to colon cancer, "it's also reasonable to suggest that diet or lack of exercise can accelerate your risk," he says.
Although the association between processed-meat eating and cancer appears to be strong, scientists don't yet understand how or why it increases cancer risk. "That's the million-dollar question," says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RDN, clinical associate professor at Boston University and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. "Is it how the meat is cooked that contributes to cancer risk, whether it's processed, or both? This report doesn't say, and we don't have the answer based on existing studies."
There's also no reason to let the report scare you away from meat entirely. Although a vegetarian diet can be a healthy one, Kensler says, eating meat provides protein, iron, and essential B vitamins more difficult to get from plant-based sources. But a nearly 20-percent increase in cancer risk compared with people who never eat processed meat is nothing to blithely dismiss.
Perhaps a more doable takeaway from the WHO report is to increase the variety in your diet. "What we can get from this report is 'let's broaden our choices,' " Blake says. Subbing in a fatty fish for dinner twice a week and embracing Meatless Mondays could have a huge impact on your health, she says, whether you kiss bacon goodbye or not.
High-temperature charbroiling produces a variety of carcinogens, Kensler says, so choose alternative cooking methods like slow cooking over low heat. And, in general, "don't eat red meat every day" is a reasonable rule of thumb. "Moderation is the most sensible risk-reduction strategy, given what we know," he says.
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