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Tufts Public Health » Awareness, Cancer » WHO is Raising Critical Consciousness of Consumers of Red Meat and Processed Meat

WHO is Raising Critical Consciousness of Consumers of Red Meat and Processed Meat

cowThe International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently reported findings that the consumption of red meat and processed meats raises the risk of cancer. Processed meats include hot dogs, sausage, ham, bacon, or any meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation or smoking. Red meats include beef, veal, pork, lamb, horse, mutton, and goat. The IARC reviewed over 800 studies of consumption of processed or red meat and indicated an association of cancer with studies from people across many diverse ethnicities and diets. However, this finding isn’t new, there has been previous research and studies regarding meat and associated cancer-causing relationship for years. In recent weeks, the WHO has set the agenda and captured the attention of consumers and media outlets worldwide by speaking to this issue and ranking processed meats in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos exposure.

Quantifying the riskmeat

The cancers associated with consumption of red meat and processed meats included colorectal cancer mainly, but also indicated associations with pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. The Global Burden of Disease Project estimated 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide, attributable to diets high in processed meats. According to the IARC, “The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat (about 2 slices of ham) eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”

Although the risk for developing colorectal cancer is relatively low, the risk increases with consumption of red meat and processed meats. According to the National Cancer Institute, colorectal cancer is also one of the most lethal forms of cancer, with 50,000 deaths per year. Red meat specifically was more difficult to estimate in association, but the WHO studies indicate a causal relationship in the risk of colorectal cancer, which “could increase by 17% for every 100 gram portion of red meat eaten daily.” (100 grams of red meat is a quarter pound of steak or two-thirds of a pork chop.)

What does this mean for you?

This does not mean you need to become a vegetarian, rather to be more aware of what you are consuming and be mindful of your choices. If you currently have a diet that is rich in processed meat and red meat, it is advised to cut back the frequency of consumption. The IARC and American Cancer Society did not specifically set a target or guideline to what is considered a safe amount to consume. It is suggested if you do eat red meat, to have smaller portions, leaner cuts, and consider it a special item rather than a staple item.

Alternative choices

Processed meats can even include turkey bacon and chicken or turkey sausage, even though recognized as a healthier choice, still falls under the processed meats category. The American Cancer Society recommends a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, with limited processed meat and red meat. It is recommended to choose fish, poultry, or beans, as an alternative to red meat and processed meat. Meat replacements can be comprised of tofu, tempeh, and seitan with multiple styles of preparation. Non-meat sources of protein include dairy products, eggs, nuts and seeds, beans, and legumes.

Take away message

Although there are risks associated with consuming red meat, there are also nutritional benefits including protein, minerals, and vitamins. Red meat provides all the essential amino acids, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12; these nutrients help you build muscle mass, strengthen your immune system, and aid in digestion.

Processed meats had a higher likelihood of causing cancer, compared to red meat ranking a step below. The data does not necessarily indicate that you need to cut meat our of your diet completely, but to consume it in moderation and choose alternative protein sources when possible. Maintaining a healthy and active lifestyle aids in mitigating some cancers by being conscious of one’s diet and being a critical consumer.

To learn more visit the WHO’s Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat here:

by Sara Suter, MPH Candidate ’16

Filed under: Awareness, Cancer

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