The International Agency for Research on Cancer (which is part of the World Health Organization) released a report today declaring red meat to be a probable carcinogen.
Should you stop eating red meat? Not solely on the basis of this announcement.
Some background: The IARC has so far reviewed more than 900 agents for carcinogenicity and only one was found to be not carcinogenic. Other carcinogens or probable carcinogens identified by IARC? Coffee and wine (alcohol).
It's important to understand exactly what this designation means. It does not mean that consuming red meat will give you cancer. It means that one or more compounds found in a very diverse category of foods (one that includes everything from fast food burgers to grass fed bison) has the potential to cause cancer. It says nothing about how much or what type of meat increases your risk of cancer, what the magnitude of that risk might be, or the extent to which other foods in your diet offset that risk.
In fact, a meta-analysis of 27 studies recently published in Journal of the American College of Nutrition concludes that the association between red meat consumption and cancer is, in fact, rather weak. And as more studies tackle this question, the accumulated evidence is becoming weaker, not stronger. Part of this may reflect the fact that the ways in which we raise, process, and eat meat have changed in the decades since the earliest data were collected.
Let me be clear: Meat is not essential to a healthy diet -- and there are many valid reasons that you may choose not to eat it. I eat very little of it myself. However, as is the case with both coffee and wine, meat also provides beneficial nutrients and many people enjoy consuming it. And I think people who want to include meat (or coffee or wine) in their diets can do so without undue concern about cancer risks.
That said, all three of these foods (and just about anything else you can think of) can be consumed in quantities and contexts that are not healthful and that's something we want to avoid.
Guidelines for Healthy Meat Consumption
I like to see people who enjoy red meat eating it in reasonable portion sizes, using cooking methods that reduce the formation of harmful compounds, and consuming it in the context of a varied diet that includes other sources of plant and animal protein, as well as plenty of fruits and vegetables.
On average, Americans consume about three servings of red meat per week. The association between meat consumption and increased disease risk is only seen in the very heaviest meat eaters -- people who are eating 15 or more servings per week. It's also worth noting that heavy meat consumption is also correlated with reduced consumption of fruits and vegetables, higher body mass index, and other factors which contribute to those same disease risks.
Despite all the sensational media coverage that is sure to follow this announcement, this latest finding is really nothing new and not cause for undue concern.
Note: The author has no financial or other ties to any meat-producing interests and has no conflicts of interest to disclose.