A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

What meat and cancer warnings mean for your health

Illustration - plate piled high with bacon

The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously stated that eating processed meat can cause cancer and eating red meat probably can cause the disease.

But you don’t have to throw out all that steak and bacon in your refrigerator. “This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat meat,” said Dr. Adedayo Onitilo, Marshfield Clinic Health System oncologist. “It means you can eat meat in moderation.”

The connection between meat and cancer

WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has shared that eating processed meat can cause colon cancer. Processed meat includes hot dogs, sausages, ham, corned beef, bacon, beef jerky and canned meat.

Each 50-gram portion (about 1.8 ounces) eaten daily increases colon cancer risk by 18%. “That number sounds high, but it likely means a small increase in the actual number of cancer cases,” Dr. Onitilo said. “The risk is never going to be zero percent.”

Processed meat was listed as a Group 1 carcinogen along with tobacco smoking and asbestos, but the classification doesn’t mean they’re equally dangerous, according to the WHO website. It only means substances in the group are known to cause cancer.

The link between red meat and cancer isn’t so clear. Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.

Eating red meat “probably” can cause colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers, according to the report. The classification was based on limited evidence linking red meat to cancer.

“Red meat, which provides protein and vitamin B12 for a healthy brain and nervous system, still can be included as part of a healthy diet,” said Chrisanne Urban, Marshfield Clinic Health System dietician.

Onitilo agreed: “If you don’t eat any meat, you may have other health problems to contend with.”

How much meat safe to eat?

The WHO report didn’t specify how much processed and red meat is safe to eat.

Urban suggested limiting red meat to 12-18 ounces per week and processed meat to little, if any.

Evaluate your diet and lifestyle

“You don’t have to cut meat out of your diet, but take some time to reflect on your eating habits,” Urban said.

Add more veggies, fruits, whole grains and legumes to your diet if you’re not eating enough. If you eat red or processed meat daily, replace some servings with healthful foods instead of highly processed options.

“It’s all about balance and variety,” Urban said. “Other foods pose health risks in large quantities, but there are no bad foods.”

Besides eating meat in moderation, make other lifestyle changes to reduce your cancer risk, like quitting smoking and losing weight if needed.

If you have questions about healthy ways to change your diet, get in touch with a nutritionist or make an appointment with your primary care provider.

  1. Nov 5, 2015
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