Perhaps you've heard that the World Health Organization released a statement. Or maybe you've seen the headlines comparing bacon to smoking or telling you your hamburger is going to give you cancer.
Just in case you missed it, I'll bring you up to speed. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on Monday classifying processed meats as carcinogenic and red meats as probably carcinogenic. Sounds pretty scary. (You can read the statement yourself here).
So, let's look at this a little more closely. The WHO did not perform any new research into red meat and processed meat. Their panel of experts examined over 800 studies that had already been done on the topic of processed and/or red meat and cancer. They made their statement based on what the general consensus seemed to be from those studies. That's my way of telling you, this is not a nutritional breakthrough we're talking about here.
Research has suggested that processed meats (especially those with nitrates) and red meat (especially when grilled or "char-broiled") may cause people who consume them regularly to have an increased risk of cancer, especially colon cancer.
Processed meats are things like bacon, sausage, ham, deli meats, hot dogs, bratwurst, Spam, etc. Red meats are things like beef, pork, lamb, mutton, veal, goat, and horse. Both categories of meat are ones that nutrition experts generally recommend you to enjoy in moderation (ie not daily, not even weekly usually).
The WHO group found in their evaluation of the studies that a serving of processed meat a day can increase your risk of colon cancer by about 18%. This is an increased risk factor of 1.1 to 1.2 for each serving of processed meat. In comparison, smoking causes an increased risk factor of 20 for developing lung cancer. That's a comparison of 30,000 deaths being caused by processed meats versus roughly a million deaths being caused by smoking.
In my opinion, the best way to think about the WHO statement is as another example that things like bacon and hamburgers are not staples of a healthy diet. The more you can fill your diet with fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins (like chicken, fish, or soy) the healthier your diet will be. That doesn't mean you can't indulge in a burger or BLT every so often, but do so infrequently.
The WHO statement is not inconsequential to the medical community or the cancer research community, but don't let your local news station scare you. The USDA's dietary guidelines have reflected all of those studies findings for a number of years. Cancer is a very complex set of diseases, but studies have continually shown that the best way to decrease your risk of cancer is to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, stay active, and stop (or don't start) smoking.
Taryn is a Los Angeles based Registered Dietitian who's passionate about helping you be your healthiest you.