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Red and Processed Meats Can Increase Your Cancer Risk

November 03, 2015

This post is written in conjunction with Lauren Popeck, RD.

If beef, bacon and hot dogs are a regular part of your diet, you could be increasing your risk for cancer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that eating red meats and processed meats can cause cancer. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, horse and goat. Processed meats are meats that have been salted, cured, fermented or smoked to enhance their flavor, including ham, sausage, bacon, hot dogs, corn beef and beef jerky.

WHO reviewed more than 800 studies to assess the link between cancer and the consumption of red and processed meats. The studies indicated that the way these meats are cooked and processed can cause carcinogenic chemicals to develop in these foods.

Why Are Red and Processed Meats Carcinogenic?

Though WHO’s recent announcement sounds the alarm, we’ve always known that eating a high proportion of red meat is associated with developing colon cancer. This statement just takes it a step further by labeling all processed meats as cancer-causing.

In addition to cooking and processing techniques, experts also think that the iron in red and processed meats may transform certain preservatives into carcinogens once they enter the body. These meats are most closely linked to the development of colorectal cancer. Researchers also discovered a link to pancreatic, advanced prostate and stomach cancer.

34,000 cancer deaths every year are linked to diets high in processed meats, according to estimates by the Global Burden of Disease Project. Experts estimate that 50,000 cancer deaths every year can be linked to eating red meat. According to WHO, the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 18 percent for every 50-gram portion of processed meat you eat every day (the equivalent of a little less than 2 ounces). For red meat, the risk increases by 17 percent for every 100-gram portion (or about 3.5 ounces ).

What You Can Do

So how much red and processed meat can you safely eat? WHO did not include specific recommendations in its announcement, but if your diet is high in these foods it’s time to cut back.

To have a healthy, balanced diet, you should eat different types of protein, including lean meats, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds and legumes. Limit your daily consumption of red and processed meats and practice healthy lifestyle choices when it comes to diet, exercise and nutrition. Eat more fruits, vegetables and plant foods, rather than processed foods. A good thing to keep in mind is that every meal you eat should be filled with vibrant colors. The more naturally colorful your meal is, the more likely it is to have an abundance of cancer-fighting nutrients.

To reduce your overall cancer risk, follow these tips:

  • Replace packaged deli meats with fresh chicken or fish. If you’re short on ideas for lunch every day, leftovers from a hot meal the night before work great and are budget friendly.
  • Instead of bacon, chorizo or salami, try spicy vegetarian sausages or tofu scramble, and replace ground meat or sausage in chili and soup with kidney beans, black beans or lentils. Mushrooms are hearty and work great as a meat substitute, too.
  • Try different sources of protein like eggs, plain Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and hummus.
  • Make homemade veggie burgers or bean burgers, rather than beef. Eggplant cutlets also are a great stand-in for hamburgers.
  • Snack on nuts and fruit and be careful about your toppings. Top pizza with veggies rather than pepperoni.

The key takeaway here is that balance is important. Eating bacon or a hamburger occasionally is fine, but these foods should be the exception rather than the rule.