Can Eating Red and Processed Meats Really Cause Cancer?

Can Eating Red and Processed Meats Really Cause Cancer?

We asked an expert to weigh in on the WHO’s recommendations.

Eating processed meats like sausage and bacon, and red meats like steak and ground beef, may increase your risk for colorectal cancer and possibly a few other cancers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In October 2015, the WHO reported that they reviewed more than 800 studies and found that eating more than 100 grams—roughly one steak the size of a deck of cards—of red meat per day was associated with a 17% higher risk of colorectal cancer.

The report also found that people who eat more than 50 grams, or about two pieces of bacon, of processed meat per day increased their colorectal cancer risk by 18%.

Beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat are all classified as red meat in the report. Processed meats describe meats that have gone through preservation or flavoring processes like salting, curing, fermentation and smoking.

Other research has revealed links between eating red meats and increased risks of pancreatic, advanced prostate and stomach cancers, says Ashley Jeter, MD, hematologist and oncologist at Charleston Cancer Center and in South Carolina. WHO experts said that more research is needed to fully understand these associations.

Although not conclusive, one theory is that red meat becomes carcinogenic when it’s cooked at high temperatures, and some suggest red meat may increase the risk for pancreatic and prostate cancers, too. “Cooking red meat forces the iron, or heme portions of the meat to convert into compounds that are potentially carcinogenic,” says Dr. Jeter.

Conclusive evidence shows that processed meats do in fact up our risk for colorectal cancer, and more research is needed to understand the link between processed meat and stomach cancers. The evidence that processed meats may increase colorectal cancer risk is stronger than the evidence that shows red meat may increase colorectal cancer risk.

The bottom line: practice moderation
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends people consume no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week, and avoid processed meats altogether. The American Cancer Society says people should limit their red meat intake – opting for fish, chicken and vegetable options instead.

Dr. Jeter recommends her patients eat no more than four ounces of red meat twice a week and as little processed meat as possible.

“If you can eat less than that, that’s great, because we know more than that can be detrimental to your overall health,” Dr. Jeter explains.

The most important takeaway: moderation is key. “Having healthy limitations on your diet is a good idea anyway. Increase your intake of healthy fruits, vegetables and fiber, limit saturated fats and have some days where you're not eating meat at all,” says Dr. Jeter.

If you’re looking for an easy way to skip meat once a week, try the “Meatless Monday” movement which encourages people to eat nutritious, vegetarian or vegan foods each Monday. Dr. Jeter is a big fan of the global movement because it’s a simple way to incorporate healthy plant-based proteins and up your intake of veggies, whole grains and fruit. The Meatless Monday website offers recipes, restaurant ideas and testimonials for people looking for extra tips or encouragement. 

Related: Why Women May Want to Lay Off the Red Meat