The World Health Organization’s (WHO) findings about processed meat and its connection to colorectal cancer made a huge splash and trended worldwide. It’s very encouraging that world health leaders are spending time examining the research to think about how to prevent cancer, reduce the chances of recurrence and improve the health of individuals around the globe.
Fight Colorectal Cancer (Fight CRC) understands the outcry. These reports can be confusing and consumers misled on how to use the information. Our patient resource team, along with our Medical Advisory Board and staff, is here to add clarification and (for bacon lovers), some hope.
Do Not Neglect A Well-Balanced Diet
Before we delve into the details of the processed meat news, we want to say at the outset: a well-balanced diet is of highest priority when it comes to reducing cancer incidence and recurrence. This well-balanced diet for cancer prevention does not necessarily exclude foods — including meat.
The diet that will reduce your chances of developing colon or rectal cancer or colorectal cancer recurrence includes:
- Plates that are mostly full of plant-based foods and whole grains
- Diets with limited red and processed meats (less is more here).
The key word is balanced.
Processed Meat: Carcinogenic to Humans? This is Not New Info.
For years, studies have suggested a link between cancer and high consumption of meat –- specifically red meat and processed meats. This week, meat made the headlines as the WHO and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) placed processed meat in Group 1 – “Carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to Humans,” acknowledging that there is enough evidence to clearly state that processed meats do, in fact, increase cancer risk.
Twenty-two experts from 10 countries were involved in the IARC group. They reviewed over 800 studies on human cancer and red and processed meat consumption. The group is not responsible for making recommendations, rather, getting the information out to the public to inform policy changes and guidelines. Their information presents data regarding red meats, processed meats and the cancer risks for individuals who consume them.
What is processed vs. unprocessed meat?
Back when humans were mostly hunters and gatherers, meat was eaten within hours of the hunt. Today, things are done a lot differently. We preserve our food to make the shelf life longer. Our bodies are not fond of the process meat goes through for preservation. Examples of processing meats include curing, adding salts and preservatives, fermenting, smoking and even barbequing. Examples of processed meats include corned beef, hot dogs, canned meat, sausage, jerky, lunch meats and bacon.
Alternatively, unprocessed meats are those that have not undergone a process for preservation that extends its shelf life. Red meats that are unprocessed include beef, lamb and pork. The WHO findings indicate these meats may increase cancer risk as well, and the IARC placed these meats in Group 2A – “Probably Carcinogenic.”
Relative risk versus overall (absolute) risk of meat eaters and cancer
In research, relative risk is the likelihood of an event happening in one group vs. another. In this example, the report looked at the risk of developing colorectal cancer amongst those who eat diets high in red and processed meats versus those who do not.
This new report indicates that the relative risk among individuals who consume a diet high in red meats is higher as compared to those who consume the lowest levels. The article cites a 17% increased risk for colorectal cancer for those consuming 100 gm of red meat or 50 gm of processed meat daily.
(To put this into perspective, a quarter pounder from McDonalds has about 120 gms of red meat and one Oscar Meyer hot dog weighs 45gms.)
This is NOT the same thing as lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer – which is about 5% (1 in 20, or 5 in 100 people).
The extra risk associated with high red meat consumption over one’s lifetime is then 17% of the 5% estimated lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer. This equates to an increased lifetime risk of approximately 1% for those who consume high levels of red or processed meats (17% of 5%, which is about 1%).
According to this research, the average risk of getting colorectal cancer increases from 5% to 6% (1% gain) for someone who consumes a high amount of red and processed meats.
Although this is a simplified estimate (because we don’t know the proportion of people who consume high vs. low levels, nor do we have relative risks for those who consume levels in between), this gives us an idea of the impact of this estimated increase in risk associated with red meat consumption.
This overall 1% increase is meaningful, but it is important for us to understand risk and data when reviewing medical reports and information.
To Eat Meat or Not to Eat Meat?
There are noted health benefits of eating meat including B12, iron and zinc. One feasible goal for anyone is to not completely remove all meat but rather to seriously consider what types of meat are being consumed, and how often. We DO know there are risks with consuming red and processed meats and research is still being done to understand why.
There are no clean-cut rules on eating meat and preventing cancer, but here are a few solid points:
- Colorectal cancer risk DOES increase with the amount of meat you eat
- Avoid as many processed meats as possible
- Buy meats that are nitrate-free
- Consume white meats (that are unprocessed) vs. red meats
On occasion, it’s been said that eating meat, processed or not, is okay. It’s when these foods are a staple in the everyday diet that the risk is more noted.
Again – balance is key.
Considerations on the Meat and Cancer Risk Study
There are varying proponents and critics of these recommendations, but it is important to note that universally, everyone agrees that cigarette smoking and exposure to environmental factors like asbestos are profoundly more harmful than this recent WHO report on processed meat (despite being categorized in the same risk category in this report).
The key to managing a colorectal cancer risk and preventing the disease through diet centers on eating a well-balanced diet and moderating consumption of any meat – particularly red and processed.
It is also important to remember other lifestyle recommendations, such as physical activity and maintaining a healthy weight while examining cancer risk.
And of course, one of the single most important things you can do to prevent colorectal cancer is to get screened for colorectal cancer.
Get More Resources
Fight Colorectal Cancer is a leading resource for colon and rectal cancer information. For more information, visit our Colorectal Cancer Resources.