Well-Known Cancer Risk of Red Meat Confirmed by WHO

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While red meats might be popular choices on the dinner table, they’re not finding big fans in the medical community. Research has been mounting for years that red meats including pork, lamb, and beef contribute to a variety of chronic illnesses, cancer, and heart disease among them. Now the World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has put out a summary of that research indicating high confidence within the research community that these meats lead to cancer. In spite of the furor around the new statement, the change is supporting what many researchers have known for years.

How does red meat cause cancer?

Research has long linked red meats to cancer risk. The associations have been strongest for colon cancer, but 15 other cancers have also been linked to eating large amounts of red meat. Those findings have been extended to processed meats, like those found in hot dogs, which also seem to lead to higher rates of colon cancer in particular. The exact way these meats are leading to cancer is still somewhat unclear. Studies have shown that humans who eat a lot of red meat and lab animals fed these meats are more likely to end up with precancerous growths in their large intestine where colon cancer happens. Further research has indicated that the process of digesting red and processed meats could lead to the release of chemicals in these foods that damage DNA. That damage can mess with genes in your colon cells that normally help the body to fight cancer. When these genes are knocked out, your cells grow in abnormal ways, eventually developing into cancer if the damage continues.

Why did the WHO change their opinion?

The IARC, which is the cancer arm of the WHO, keeps a list of foods and chemicals that have the potential to cause cancer and ranks them based on how sure they are that they’re related to the appearance of cancer. This list helps inspire further research into potentially harmful compounds, helps alert the rest of the world to possible risks in chemicals and foods we’re exposed to, and provides a summary of what the research has shown for these compounds. Its opinions are always based on a huge amount of past research and are never truly a surprise.

In the case of red and processed meat, data in the past had put them at the level of “probably carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.” Based on the growing body of evidence, the IARC has bumped that label up to “carcinogenic to humans” removing any doubt indicated by the previous label. The change was based on more than 800 different studies on cancer in humans.

Which meats are linked to cancer?

The label applies to all red meats including:

  • Beef
  • Veal
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Mutton
  • Horse
  • Goat

The label also applies to all processed meats, including:

  • Hot dogs (frankfurters)
  • Ham
  • Sausages
  • Corned beef
  • Biltong or beef jerky
  • Canned meat
  • Meat-based preparations and sauces

Research has also shown that cooking meats at high heat or above an open flame can introduce cancer-causing chemicals into the meat that weren’t there before cooking. That’s because high-temperature cooking can convert pre-existing chemicals to different and potentially more harmful forms.

Is there a way to get rid of this cancer risk?

Unfortunately, the components of meat that lead to this damage are often intrinsic parts of the meat that can’t be removed. It’s not as simple as cutting the fat of your steak. Some of the components of blood that contribute to cancer risk, for example, are found throughout all pieces of meat and can’t be easily removed without destroying the meat itself. The only way researchers have found to cut your cancer risk when it comes to red and processed meats is to eat less of them. It’s also not clear that eating raw meat reduces the risk and doing so carries a high danger of bacterial infection.

Is eating red meat as dangerous as smoking?

This new label puts meat in the same category as cigarettes on the IARC’s list, but that doesn’t reflect a similar risk. The cancer risk from eating meat is much lower than the cancer risk from smoking cigarettes, which causes high rates of a variety of deadly and disfiguring cancers. While the risk from red meat is much lower, the link to cancer is very clear. The label from the IARC is aimed at indicating that red meat poses a definite, increased cancer risk to anyone who eats red or processed meats on a regular basis, just like cigarettes.

What does this mean for me?

We’ve known for years that these meats are bad for our health, both in terms of cancer risk and in terms of heart disease risk. It should come as little surprise to find out that eating a lot of red and processed meat isn’t so great for your body. If red or processed meats make up a big part of your diet, you should think about cutting down on how much and how often you eat them. The research shows that the cancer risk is based on your dose, meaning the more meat you eat, the higher your cancer risk. Cutting down will cut your risk, even if you’re still eating some meat. If you’ve been eating red and processed meat for many years, you should also make sure you have your scheduled screening colonoscopy at age 50, or earlier if you have a strong family history, since meats increase the risk of this cancer more than any others studied.

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