Meat and Cancer

An announcement that processed and red meat increase your risk of cancer is all over the news today. The International Agency on Cancer Research (IACR) – a part of the World health Organization – is the source of this news. They released a statement saying that consumption of processed meats increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. According to the statement, red meat is “probably carcinogenic” based on “limited evidence” that consumption causes colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.

As a nutrition professional, this statement bothers me a bit.

First, the statement doesn’t adequately put the risk in context. What does 18% risk increase mean? It is kind of a confusing statistic, because it is talking about “relative risk”, meaning your risk compared to another group of people.

One article I read broke it down to some actual numbers based on colorectal cancer rates in the United Kingdom, which I think is a helpful way of looking at it. In the group of people who eat the least amount of processed meat, 56 out of 1000 people would get colorectal cancer. Compare that to the group who consume the most processed meat: 66 out of 1000 people get colorectal cancer.

On the same vein, this is not in context compared with other known carcinogens. In the IARC’s classification system, processed meat is classified the same as tobacco. This means that the evidence is as strong for both BUT the actual increase in risk is different. The evidence shows that 18% of colorectal cancers are caused by processed meat compared to 86% of lung cancers being caused by tobacco. That’s a pretty big difference.

Second, did any of use think we should really eat a lot of processed meat or red meat? I think almost everyone knows they should avoid overconsumption of either food for health reasons beyond cancer risk.

Third, this overlooks any nutrition benefits of red meat. Protein and well-absorbed iron are among the health benefits of consuming red meat in moderation.

The take aways are the same as always. Consume foods in moderation, not to excess. ┬áDon’t be overly swayed by large declarations about health in the news.

As always, happy eating!

Have any nutrition questions? Need help with meal planning or a special dietary need? Send your questions to me at kimberlykmarsh(at)gmail(dot)com, and I will answer them in upcoming posts!

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