Processed meat and cancer: What’s the real risk?

Processed meats
Dr. Beg clears up some misconceptions about the risks of eating processed meats.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced in the fall of 2015 that processed meats are “carcinogenic to humans.” In other words, they can cause cancer.

The fact that processed meat is bad for your health isn’t shocking news – researchers have been talking about nitrates and other compounds in processed meats such as hot dogs, sausage, and bacon for at least 40 years. We’ve also been concerned about the over-consumption of red meat, and within the last 15 years we’ve started to recommend that our patients limit the amount of red meat they eat.

So should we all become vegetarians? Should we boycott hot dogs and bacon forever? What’s the difference between red meat and processed meat?

Let’s clear up some misconceptions about the risks of eating processed meats and discuss what we recommend you do to protect yourself from an increased cancer risk.

Are red meat and processed meat the same thing?

No. The WHO defines red meat as the muscle of mammalian animals (beef, veal, lamb, and goat, for example). Red meat is categorized as a Group 2A carcinogen, which means that it probably causes cancer if consumed in large amounts over a long period of time, but more research is needed to know for sure.

Doctors have recommended for about the last 15 years that people reduce their consumption of red meat for a variety of reasons, primarily because it has been linked to heart disease and diabetes.

Processed meat is meat that has been changed to enhance its flavor by curing, smoking, salting, or fermenting (think hot dogs, bacon, sausage, lunch meat, and canned meats). Processed meat is a Group 1 carcinogen, which is the same group that tobacco products are in. The grouping means that the ingredients within each product are known with certainty to cause cancer, but that doesn’t mean they’re equally dangerous.

Is eating bacon ‘the new smoking’?

No. Smoking is far worse for your health and cancer risk than eating processed meats.

Just as there is consistent evidence that people who smoke regularly are more likely to get lung cancer, people who eat processed meats regularly are more likely to develop colorectal cancer. But there’s a big difference in how much cancer risk is affected by tobacco versus the chemicals in processed meats.

Research shows that the risk for colon cancer increases in those who eat 50 grams of processed meat every day. However, the rate of increased risk for colon cancer is only a fraction of the cancer risk associated with smoking.

I’ve eaten processed meat forever – is it too late for me?

It’s never too late to start eating a healthier diet. If you ate hot dogs and bologna regularly as a kid (many of us did), that doesn’t automatically mean you’re doomed to develop colon cancer. However, if you ate lots of processed meat, very little vegetables and fruit, and grew up never exercising, that combination of bad habits will likely increase your risk for developing colon cancer. The risk increases further if you have a genetic disposition for the disease.

That said, our lifelong dietary habits do affect our health as we age. You may have some cellular-level damage to your colon from years of eating processed meats. The chemicals in processed meat coat your colon and damage the cells. These damaged cells then duplicate, which can cause cancer.

Reducing your intake of processed meats now can help prevent further damage and reduce your risk for developing colon cancer. Eating fewer processed meats as part of a balanced diet is also good for your heart and helps lower your risk of heart disease and stroke, so reducing the amount of processed meats you eat is really a win-win.

What are we supposed to eat, then?

It can be hard to switch the staple foods you’re used to eating, but once you develop a healthy routine, it becomes second nature. Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Swap your bacon at breakfast for a cup of colorful fruit or crunchy vegetables.
  • Skip the lunch meat sandwich and opt for a healthier choice like nut butter, a sliced hardboiled egg, or fish.
  • At dinner, encourage the kids to try grilled fish or lean cuts of meat instead of bratwurst or hot dogs.

I’m not saying you can never eat another slice of bacon; just have one or two slices at breakfast once in a while. You can indulge occasionally as long as it’s just that – an indulgence, not a regular part of your diet.

So, what’s the bottom line?

You aren’t going to get colon cancer from occasionally eating processed meats. It’s the build-up over time and eating it often that increases your risk. Keep in mind that eating excessive processed meat also is unhealthy for your heart, so cutting back will benefit your health even if you aren’t worried about developing cancer.  

Are you ready to start eating a healthier diet but aren’t sure where to begin? Request an appointment with a dietitian to learn what you should be eating and tips for how to stay on track.

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