So – what’s the deal with processed meat?
That’s a common question I get from patients, friends, and coworkers
who heard the newest processed meat news. Recently, the
World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research
on Cancer (IARC) named processed meat as a carcinogen (a Class 1 carcinogen at that)
right up there with tobacco, alcohol and UV exposure. This report claims
that 50g of processed meat a day - less than two slices of bacon - increases
the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18%.
Wow! That’s hard to swallow – literally. Does it mean you can
never eat bacon or sandwich meat again?
First of all, let’s talk about risk factors for colorectal cancer
as colorectal cancer is one of the most common cancers in both men and
women, but is 90% preventable with proper screening. If you are 50 years
or older (45 years and older if African American), have a change in your
bowel habits (diarrhea or constipation), bleeding, abdominal pain, unexplained
weight loss, or a family history of colon cancers or polyps - you should
check with a doctor about getting a screening colonoscopy.
Back to diet now.
What is processed meat? Bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef,
beef jerky and ham, in addition to canned meat and meat-based sauces are
considered processed meats. These products have been modified to either
extend their shelf life or change their taste. Smoking, curing and adding
salts or preservatives are typically how this happens.
"Moderation with processed meats is key," Dr Kurt Straif from
the WHO said. "For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal
(bowel) cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains
small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed."
Exposure is crucial here. Repeated and frequent exposure to processed meats
may contribute to an increased risk of developing cancer. Sometimes a
picture is worth a thousand words so check this out….
Case and point: limit exposure and a bacon sandwich is not as bad as smoking.
Processed meats are high in sodium also. Ever eat at Panera? I do! Did
you know the Bacon Turkey Bravo Sandwich has 2910mg of sodium in one sandwich.
This sandwich consists of smoked turkey breast, applewood smoked bacon,
smoked gouda cheese, lettuce, vine ripened tomatoes on Tomato Basil Bread.
The bacon, turkey, cheese, bread and spreads on this sandwich all contribute
to the total sodium. The2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise a daily intake of 2300 milligrams of sodium and further
reduction to 1500mg among persons who are 51 and older and those of any
age who are African American or have hypertension, diabetes, or chronic
kidney disease. The 1,500 mg recommendation applies to about half of the
U.S. population, including children, and the majority of adults.
What about red meat? IARC said red meats were "probably carcinogenic"
but there was limited evidence.
How should the public interpret this? I hope that this evokes the general
public to look at the overall quality of their diet and eat more fresh
fruits, fresh vegetables, whole grains and decrease their consumption
of processed meats and red meat. Less processed meats also means less
salt. So, cancer or not, processed meats are not good for anyone. If you
are eating processed meat two out of three times daily, you might want
to rethink your diet. Here are some suggestions to try -
- Replace deli meats and cold cuts with fresh chicken or avocados.
- Instead of bacon, chorizo or salami, try spicy vegetarian sausages.
- Replace sausage in chili and soups with beans like kidney beans, chickpeas
- Try out different sources of protein like eggs, cottage cheese, tofu and hummus
My advice is how I try to live my life – having a healthy diet overall
and if I do eat something bad that I’m not doing it all the time
and I’m quickly getting back on track to what I know is healthy.
Moderation is key.
And get your screening colonoscopy!
- Written by:
Whitney Christie and
Richard Fortunato, DO, Colorectal Cancer Surgeon