A report on Monday by the World Health Organization (WHO) linking processed meat with cancer has been the subject of big time media headlines. Fox News, among others, jumped on the bandwagon with an alarmist (and highly inaccurate) story lead, proclaiming, "Eating processed meat like hot dogs and bacon could be as dangerous as smoking cigarettes when it comes to cancer." Meanwhile Twitter has been abuzz with "I told you sos" from vegetarians, environmentalists, and animal rights activists, while the meat industry is working overtime to undo the damage.
With all the swirl, it can be hard to get to the truth.
Here's what we know:
The WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer looked at over 800 studies and found processed meats (i.e., ham, bacon, sausage) to be "carcinogenic to humans" and red meats (i.e., beef, pork, lamb, goat), to be "probably carcinogenic to humans."
Are either as highly correlated as cigarettes? Not even close. According to the report, "The consumption of processed meat was associated with small increases in the risk of cancer in the studies reviewed." Hardly the impact of chain smoking Marlboros by the pack-full.
This might make for juicy headlines, but the link between eating meat and cancer is hardly groundbreaking news. Consider the following:
-- Nitrates, used to process ham, bacon, and other cured meats, have long been a known carcinogen.
-- It's a well established fact that cooking meat at high temperatures, such as grilling, is associated with an increased cancer risk.
-- A diet high in saturated fat, such as in most processed meat and many cuts of red meat, has been linked with an increased risk for disease, including cancer for many years.
-- Most nutrition professionals have long agreed that a plant-based diet with less meat is the healthiest, as evidenced by this statement by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, "Thus, the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains."
What remains unknown is if the risks differ for organic or grass fed meat over conventionally-raised animals AND how much meat or processed meat is considered safe. It's now up to government agencies to take a look at the WHO report and make some recommendations.
In the meantime, does this news make a dent in my diet?
Probably not. My advice now doesn't differ from what I would have told you two days ago, before the study was released:
-- Pile your plate with fruits and vegetables.
-- Emphasize plant-based protein sources, such as beans, nuts, and legumes.
-- Include a couple servings of fish each week.
-- Go meatless more often than not. When you do eat meat, limit the portion to four to six ounces.
-- Consider the fact that cutting back on meat may leave room in your budget for better quality meat, such as grass fed and organic.
-- Know that restaurant portions for meat tend to be large, so split that hamburger or steak with a table mate and heavy up on salads and vegetables instead.
-- If you like processed meats, such as bacon or prosciutto, consider them more of a condiment than the main event, or eat them as a sometimes treat rather than an everyday staple.
Keep in mind, that meat also happens to be a rich source of nutrients, and for meat lovers everywhere, can be an enormous source of pleasure. As for me, I'll still enjoy an occasional hot dog at the ballpark and crumble bacon over a favorite salad, because, as one Twitterer tweeted today, "Bacon may kill you, but not eating bacon means you never lived."