In a nutshell, a group of experts conducted a comprehensive review of studies that looked at the association between processed or red meat and cancer. They declared that processed meat is definitely a carcinogen, with the most powerful link to colon cancer. Based on the data reviewed, they found that every daily 50-gram portion of processed meat—that is, meat that’s been cured, salted, smoked, or preserved, including ham, bacon, and sausages—ups the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. A 50-gram portion is about 2 ounces, or about two breakfast sausage links. The WHO says it’s as certain that these foods cause cancer as they are certain that cigarettes cause cancer.
Their findings also prompted them to categorize red meat (like beef, pork, and lamb) as “probably carcinogenic”—the evidence linking red meat to cancer is not quite as strong as it is for processed meats.
If you’re feeling freaked out by this news, you’re not alone. But protecting yourself from cancer is more complicated than simply banning bacon and steak from your diet. Here are five important nuances to note about this announcement.
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What the cigarette comparison really means
The International Agency of Research Into Cancer is the arm of the WHO that performed this analysis. The IARC’s job is to determine how likely foods, chemicals, and other items are to cause cancer, and then classify them into one of five categories: carcinogenic to humans, probably carcinogenic to humans, possibly carcinogenic to humans, not classifiable, and probably not carcinogenic.
Items that fall under “carcinogenic to humans” are the ones that have the most evidence supporting that they do cause cancer. Smoking, asbestos, tanning beds, and now processed meat can definitely cause cancer. Red meat is in the “probably carcinogenic” category because the evidence linking red meat to cancer is weaker.
While processed meats and cigarettes both fall under “carcinogenic to humans,” what this basically means is that the evidence that processed meats cause cancer is as strong as the evidence that smoking causes cancer.
This classification does not 100% guarantee that you will get colon cancer by eating bacon every morning—or lung cancer from smoking a pack a day. However, because we know that 70-87% of lung cancers are linked to smoking, no health expert would ever say that smoking, even just one cigarette a day, is a good idea.
The truth is cancer experts may say that bacon and other processed meats are now in the same dangerous boat as cigarettes. But frequency does play a role. The more you’re exposed to anything in this category, the greater the risk. So ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you want to eat these foods, and if so how often.
The best advice for bacon lovers
I personally haven’t eaten red meat in many years, and I don’t miss it. (I also have a very strong family history of colorectal cancer and cancer in general, which is one of the reasons I became a nutritionist). But I have some clients who simply tell me flat out, “I don’t care what the research says, I am not giving up bacon.”
And for those people, I advise them to think of processed meats as an occasional treat. That could mean a few strips of bacon at Sunday brunch or a few slices of pepperoni pizza on Friday night—but not both, and none during the week. I also recommend they eat no more than 18 ounces of total red meat a week, preferably lean, which is the recommendation of the American Institute for Cancer Research. These two simple strategies will likely create some balance and help lower the risks.
How meat is cooked also makes a difference
Higher levels of cancer-causing substances are formed when red meat is cooked at high temperatures, like grilling, barbecuing, and frying. In this report, the WHO didn’t look at fish, but other research has shown that even white fish cooked at high temperatures may also be linked to cancer risk, especially when it’s cooked for a longer length of time.
There are a few super-easy ways curb the formation of these cancer-causing substances. First, cut meat into smaller portions to reduce cooking time, and marinate it using antioxidant rich herbs and spices. You should also avoid allowing fat to drip—this creates smoke that deposits carcinogens back onto the meat. Flipping the meat often, trimming excess fat, and cooking meat on tinfoil will all help.
Cancer-protective foods can help
The overall makeup of your meals is still what’s most important. We can’t completely eliminate cancer risk, but we do know that certain foods protect against it. If you’re going to eat red meat, stick with about 3 ounces, the size of a deck of cards, along with at least 1 to 2 cups (think one to two tennis balls in size) of cancer-protective produce, such as tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, and cabbage.
Also include a small serving of squash or a whole grain (like quinoa), a “good” plant-based fat (like a golf ball sized portion of nuts, several slices of avocado, or a tablespoon of olive oil), and plenty of herbs and spices. The worst eating patterns, for not just cancer risk but nearly every chronic disease, are those that combine meat with other highly processed foods, excess sugar, and a lack of plants.
Don’t forget to focus on the big picture
In addition to eating healthfully, we know that many habits help keep us healthier overall, including not smoking, being active, getting enough sleep, managing stress, not drinking alcohol excessively, and securing positive social support. In fact, researchers conclude that 90 to 95% of cancer risk is rooted in lifestyle and environment, not genetics. In other words, a great deal is within your control, so don’t forget to focus on the big picture, and continually make choices that keep tipping the balance toward protection.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Yankees, previously consulted for three other professional sports teams, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics. Sass is a three-time New York Times best-selling author, and her brand new book is Slim Down Now: Shed Pounds and Inches with Real Food, Real Fast. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.