The long-running controversy over the true dangers of red meat came to a grinding halt this week when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed red meat can, in fact, lead to cancer. The decision was made after the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a panel of 22 scientists and health experts within WHO, meticulously went over 800 studies on the topic. They published these findings in the journal The Lancet Oncology.
The IARC determined that processed meats such as hot dogs, ham, and bacon contain carcinogens for humans. In a press statement, the agency explained its conclusion was “based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” In the report, based on this “sufficient evidence,” the IARC placed processed meat in Group 1. To put that into perspective, other Group 1 members include alcohol, asbestos, and tobacco.
For clarification purposes, being in the same group doesn’t necessarily mean eating processed meat is just as likely as smoking to cause cancer. It simply means the agency has just as much evidence that processed meat is carcinogenic as they do for tobacco. Nevertheless, just as a doctor wouldn’t tell you to go ahead and have a daily cigarette, same rules apply for bacon. In fact, the agency found eating just a 50-gram portion of processed red meat daily (that’s a measly 2 slices of bacon) increases your risk of colon cancer by a whopping 18%.
While the WHO certainly delved deep into this topic, it’s certainly not the first group to identify processed meat’s health dangers. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund have previously found that eating even a small portion of processed meats could increase risk of colorectal cancer. There’s also evidence it could increase the risk of other cancers, such as prostate and pancreatic cancer.
Plus, as many scientists and health-nuts have known for years, red meat can harm your body in a variety of other ways. Past studies have shown it can increase the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the cardiovascular arteries), kidney damage, and diabetes.
But do the latest findings mean you should officially cut red meat from your diet once and for all? Well, not necessarily. According to WHO, while processed meats pose a major health concern, leaner cuts of red meat (like a filet mignon) only “probably” increase the risk of cancer.
While the agency doesn’t offer strict guidelines, it does advise consumers to proceed with caution when it comes to red meat. The findings align with recommendations made by other scientific groups such as the federal government’s dietary guidelines advisory committee, which has been firmly against red and processed meat consumption for years.
While the IARC isn’t necessarily saying you need to quit bacon entirely, it does recommend significantly cutting back on the amount of red meat in your diet. No different than any other unhealthy food, it all comes down to moderation.
“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,” said Dr. Kurt Straif from the WHO, reported BBC News.
Bottom line: It’s certainly not a fantastic idea to chow down on a hot dog every day, but it’s also not necessarily fatal. While scientists continue to investigate the dangers of red meat, consider cutting your risk by swapping processed meats for leaner options like unprocessed chicken or turkey. If you’re feeling extra ambitious — you could even swap your beef burger for veggie and add some more plant-based proteins to your diet.