By Colleen Doyle, MS, RD
Nearly five years ago, I wrote a blog about reports that rotisserie chicken was worse for you than hot dogs. It wasn’t strictly true then, and now there’s even more evidence that choosing that hot dog may not be the best choice.
Hot dogs are in the news again. You’ve probably seen the recent headlines: “Bad Day For Bacon: Processed Meats Cause Cancer, WHO Says.” “Bacon, Hot Dogs as Bad as Cigarettes.” Or Time Magazine’s cover: “The War on Delicious.”
Consumer and industry reaction was fast (and furious in some cases, if the Twittersphere is any indication). What prompted all of this? The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently released a report classifying processed meat as a carcinogen (something that causes cancer) and red meat, a probable carcinogen.
Red meat (think beef, pork, lamb) and processed meats (think hot dogs, bacon, deli meats) have been linked with cancer, colorectal (commonly called colon cancer) particularly, for a number of years. And the American Cancer Society has recommended since the early 1990s that consumers limit consumption of these foods.
This new report was generated by 22 experts from 10 countries who reviewed more than 800 studies to reach their conclusions. They found that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day (that’s about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog) increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. For red meat, there was evidence of increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.
While an 18% increased risk of colon cancer sounds high, it’s important to consider that the lifetime risk of someone developing colon cancer is 5%. This means that consuming those 50 grams of processed meat every day would up that risk to about 6%.
Does this mean bacon and hots dogs have to go entirely?
So you’re probably wondering: Should I eat less processed (and red) meats? The answer to that is clear: Yes, to reduce the risk of colon and possibly other types of cancer, and heart disease as well. But the question many people are asking is: Does this report suggest that I need to completely eliminate processed and red meats? And the answer to that is no. The best way to think about this is: Occasional is okay.
How to cut back on red and processed meats
Cutting back can be easy. If you typically eat red and or processed meats multiple times a day or week, set a goal to gradually cut that in half. You can also:
Choose poultry or fish in place of red and processed meats.
Go vegetarian for a day or two during the week.
If you do eat red and processed meats, select leaner versions (it’s not clear if or how the type of fat in these might play a role in increasing cancer risk) and limit your portion sizes.
Cut back on grilling red and processed meats, as this can cause potential carcinogens to form when meats are cooked at high temperatures.
And it’s important to keep other factors in mind. When it comes to colon cancer, it’s incredibly important to talk to your doctor about when you should start regular colorectal cancer screening. And if you are one of the 80% of Americans who do not smoke, the most important ways to reduce cancer risk are to watch your weight; live a physically active lifestyle; limit alcohol consumption; and, yes, eat a mostly plant-based diet that includes limited amounts of red and processed meat.
Doyle is managing director of nutrition and physical activity for the American Cancer Society.