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Red & Processed Meats: Delicious or Dangerous?

If you follow the latest diet and nutrition trends, it was hard to miss the most recent report on red and processed meats from the World Health Organization (WHO). Scary headlines claiming processed meats are as bad as smoking had people dropping their bacon cheeseburger and ordering a salad. While shocking, these statements are not completely true.

Yes, there is a strong link between processed meat consumption and cancer development; but it’s not as simple as: eating bacon = getting cancer. According to the WHO, processed meats are classified as a Group 1 carcinogen, meaning that there is convincing evidence that they cause cancer. However, that doesn’t mean processed meats are as dangerous as smoking or asbestos (also in Group 1). The grouping is based on strength of scientific evidence about an agent being a cause of cancer, not risk level. Red meats also raise concern and are classified as a Group 2A carcinogen meaning they are probably carcinogenic to humans. Thus, the WHO recommendations remain consistent with public health recommendations to limit intake of both red and processed meats.

What’s the difference between red and processed meats?

  • Red Meats: unprocessed meat such as beef, veal, pork, and lamb.
  • Processed Meats: meats transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking such as bacon, sausage, scrapple, salami, hotdogs, etc.

How much is too much?

According to the Department of Health, if you currently eat more than 90grams (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day, you should cut down to about 70grams per day. Ninety grams is about three thinly cut slices of beef, lamb, or pork. Breakfast favorites such as sausage (46 grams per piece) and bacon (8 grams per slice) add up quickly!

Should I avoid red and processed meats all together?

Public health recommendations advise individuals to limit intake of processed meat and red meat, which are linked to increased risk of death from heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses as well. That being said, it’s not necessary to eliminate these foods from your diet completely. Red meats can be a good source of nutrients such as protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. However, you can get these nutrients from alternative food sources if desired.

What else can I do?

  • Eat smaller portions of meat
  • Switch to chicken or fish
  • Try going “meatless” a few days a week
  • Replace meats with plant-based protein such as nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes.
  • Increase your intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

Reference:
1. International Agency for Research on Cancer: World Health Organization (2015). Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from: https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A_Vol114….

By Jaclyn Hennemuth MS, RD, LDN, is a Registered Dietitian with Beebe Healthcare, where she provides medical nutrition therapy for inpatients. She graduated from the University of Delaware in 2010 with a degree in Dietetics, and currently serves as the Treasurer for the Delaware Dietetic Association.