The Meat & Colon Cancer Connection: Understanding W.H.O. Findings

Fans of bacon and other beloved meat products cringed yesterday as the World Health Organization (W.H.O) announced findings that there is “sufficient evidence in humans” that “processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” This press release was followed by bold headlines and news articles everywhere, labeling meat as the cause of cancer. While oversimplified headlines may mislead and inflate the W.H.O.’s findings, concern regarding these foods is warranted.

Carcinogenicity of processed meats is not a new finding, nor is the W.H.O.the first group to speak concern. Poor quality meat products, and poor quality diet in general, create significant risk for chronic disease. It is important to read beyond the headlines and clarify the specific findings of the Working Group while making decisions about your diet.

Brief Summary of W.H.O findings:

There is sufficient evidence in humans that processed meat causes colon cancer. Processed meats include products treated with salt, smoking, fermentation and other additives for flavor and preservation.
There is limited evidence in humans that red meat causes cancer. This included any meat from mammalian source.
These statements are based on reviews of studies looking at correlation between two statistics. Meaning, those who ate more processed meat had a higher occurrence of colon cancer. Correlation studies cannot rule out all other contributing factors, but they can show a pattern.
While statistically significant, the rate of increased risk for colon cancer was relatively low. This is in comparison to other established carcinogens, such as tobacco smoke.

What Does This Mean For Your Diet?

For those interested in limiting or removing mammalian protein from their diets, there are many healthy protein alternatives. Of greatest benefit is protein from nuts, seeds, legumes, quinoa, organic plant-based protein powders, and many more foods. Wild caught fish and pastured poultry options are also favorable alternatives for those desiring some animal products.

If you prefer to eat a variety of meat products, please consider the following factors. Not all meat is created equal, and your health and disease risks are impacted by the quality of the products you eat.

Consider Source: 

Much of the red meat consumed by Americans comes from animals fed grain based, inflammatory diets. Additionally, these animal may be treated with hormones, antibiotics, or both. The diet of the animal impacts the ratio of pro-inflammatory (omega 6) to anti-inflammatory (omega 3) fats, thereby impacting you. Both hormone and antibiotic use in these animals has potentially negative health consequences for humans.

Please choose grass fed, pastured and organically fed products.

Consider Additives:

The carcinogenicity of processed meats may be due in part to additives, such as nitrates, nitrites, and food dyes in addition to the meat itself. Uncured and organic processed meats are available, but may be more difficult to find if eating out or looking for the cheapest price tag.

Please choose meat products free of questionable additives, including nitrates/nitrites, food coloring, MSG, and food preservatives. 

Consider Additional Dietary Factors:

While monitoring quality and quantity of processed and red meat should be considered in disease prevention, the rest of the diet is equally important. Antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits support healthy digestion and ant-inflammatory processes which help to protect the body. Meals should consist primarily of these foods, with smaller portion sizes of quality protein and whole grains.

Those with a high intake of processed meats may also have a higher intake of commonly associated pro-inflammatory foods such as white bread, high-sodium or high-sugar sauces, fried foods, chips, etc. These diet choices will likely contribute to risk for chronic disease, including cancer.

Please choose organic, whole vegetables and fruits in place of processed grains, fast food and sweets.

In Health,

Dr. Kaley Bourgeois

For more information:

IARC Monograph on consumption of red and processed meat:

https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf

IARC Monographs Q & A:
http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A.pdf