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Processed meat and cancer risk: What you need to know

November 10, 2015 General Wellness

Earlier this month, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization, struck fear in the hearts of bacon-lovers everywhere when they confirmed that processed meats were, in fact, tied to increased colorectal cancer risk.

“There have been mounting studies suggesting that processed meats are linked to increased cancer risk, but this is the first report to definitively say that cancer risk is tied to processed meat consumption,” says Philip Pearson, MD, colorectal surgeon at Bryn Mawr Hospital.

The report, which was published in the Lancet medical journal, classifies processed meats like bacon, jerky, sausage, ham and hot dogs as Group 1 carcinogens, equivalent to other cancer contributors like asbestos, tobacco, and alcohol. Although the IARC wasn’t able to make recommendations about how much processed meat is too much, it did warn that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increased colorectal cancer risk by 18 percent.

For meat-lovers, this news can be confusing. How can a serving of bacon or ham for dinner be equally as dangerous as a smoking habit?

“Although processed meats, tobacco and alcohol are all considered Group 1 carcinogens, they are not all considered equal risk factors for cancer. These classifications refer to the validity of the evidence that each risk factor can cause cancer, not their individual impact,” explains Dr. Pearson. “There may be equal research into the cancer-causing effects of sausage and cigarettes, but they are not equally bad for you.”

Still, Dr. Pearson recommends cutting back on processed meats as a simple way to control your colorectal cancer risk.

“Lifestyle factors are an important part of colorectal cancer prevention,” he says. “Limiting processed and red meat consumption, staying at a healthy weight, and being active can help prevent many cases of colorectal cancer and help reduce overall cancer risk.”

Healthy substitutions

For meat lovers, giving up bacon and sausage can be difficult. Gretchen Skwer, RDN, LDN, outpatient dietitian with the cancer centers at Bryn Mawr and Paoli hospitals, offers the below tips for reducing your processed meat intake without sacrificing taste:

  • Opt for fish, chicken and turkey instead of processed and red meats. These lean meats are full of protein, heart healthy, and can still be served in some of your favorite meat dishes in place of sausage or ham
  • Once a week, go totally meatless. Try stir-fried vegetables or a large salad made with kale or topped with salmon, two calcium-rich foods that can lower colorectal cancer risk. Stir-fried vegetables can also make a tasty lunch or dinner
  • You don’t have to give up meat! Limit eating processed meats and, if you are indulging, fill the rest of your plate with whole grains, fruits and vegetables

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