Goodbye Bacon? Red Meat, Processed Meat, and Cancer Risk

Wake Up

First, let’s talk about what the report was about. It came from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO). The IARC is a research organization that evaluates scientific evidence on the causes of cancer. The evidence about red meat and cancer risk was not necessarily a new research finding; the report was just a summary of all the research we already had, giving an overall conclusion.

The IARC classifies categories of cancer risk according to how much scientific evidence we have about it, not the actual level of risk. So, even though processed meat and smoking are now in the same category, that doesn’t mean that eating bacon with your breakfast is the same as smoking a pack of cigarettes per day. (In fact, smoking is much more carcinogenic—cancer causing—than processed meats). Being in the same category simply means that we have a similar amount of good quality research on each.

Here’s what the IARC tells us about the actual risk: eating about 1.8 ounces of processed meat daily (the equivalent of about 3 slices of bacon) will increase the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent. The risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 5% for both men and women in the U.S.  So that means that eating large amounts of processed meat will raise your risk to about 5.8% overall.

The WHO has been telling us about the connection between processed meat and cancer risk for quite some time—since at least 2002, in fact. They recommend, “People who eat meat should moderate the consumption of processed meat to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.”

The American Cancer Society similarly recommends, “Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.”

Registered Dietitians have been counseling the public and our clients for years to move toward a more plant-based diet, and one with limited amounts of red and processed meats, to protect against cancer (particularly colorectal cancer) as well as heart disease.

The American Cancer Society gives us some great general recommendations for reducing cancer risk:

Choose foods and drinks in amounts that help you get to and maintain a healthy weight.

Limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat.

Eat at least 2 ½ cups of vegetables and fruits each day.

Choose whole grains instead of refined grain products.

Drink no more than one (alcoholic) drink per day for women or two per day for men.

Fear not—you don’t have to swear off steak for the rest of your life. Red meat does contain important nutrients such as protein, iron, and vitamin B12. But if you typically have several of slices of bacon or sausage links with breakfast, or hit the grill every day for a burger at lunch, consider cutting back. As with most things, moderation is key. A good rule of thumb is to limit processed meat as much as possible, and to limit red meat intake to about three times per week, with serving sizes similar to a deck of cards.