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Meat and Cancer: What's the Panic?

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The World Health Organization (WHO)'s recent findings, connecting red and processed meat with cancer, reverberated throughout the world, but they're hardly big news.

The American Cancer Society's guidelines have been advising for decades to "limit how much processed meat and red meat you eat" and mention that, "many studies have found a link between red meat or processed meat intake and colorectal cancer risk."

And indeed, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the expert group that evaluated the meat-cancer link for the WHO, had at their disposal 800 studies on the topic. These studies have been trickling in over the years -- none of them with encouraging news -- leading many agencies and experts to recommend limiting red and processed meat. The WHO basically reviewed the same set of evidence and came to the same unsurprising conclusions.

But for years, it seemed that the only people noticing those warnings were vegetarians (of which I am one for full disclosure).

So maybe, the WHO's report's language is a bit clearer, a bit stronger.

Maybe the main difference is that the media had a bigger appetite for this report at this time -- is it because beef jerky and bacon are such hot trends recently?

Or maybe people are more interested in the connection between food and health nowadays, and finally realize that prevention is easier and more effective than treatment.

What should you do?

The WHO's findings are a scientific evaluation, not a set of recommendations on what to eat. So here's my take:

If you eat processed meat and don't want to give it up, meat is definitely not like cigarettes, as some headlines suggested. Meat's not as carcinogenic and it has nutritional value -- cigarettes, on the other hand, have high risk and absolutely zero health benefits. More than 85 percent of lung cancers result from tobacco smoking, yet according to the WHO's report 50 grams (less than 2 ounces) of processed meat daily might increase colorectal cancer by 18 percent, so smoking is much more likely to cause cancer than eating processed meat, even though both are in the same category of "carcinogenic to humans."

And mind you, the IARC's notorious list of human carcinogens -- to which processed meats was added to -- also includes ethanol in alcoholic beverages, some types of human papilloma virus (HPV) that quite a few parents resist vaccination from, secondhand smoking, and sun exposure.

Two substances can be in the category of "carcinogenic to humans," but that doesn't mean they're equally dangerous, because the level of risk and the amount of exposure matter a lot. The sun's rays, X-rays and gamma radiation are all in the same category, but that doesn't mean that going to the beach every weekend is as risky as getting a weekly CT scan.

On the other hand, if you're open to reducing meat intake, there are many health, environmental and ethical reasons to do so. The scientific advisory report that provides the scientific basis to the upcoming 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans stated that:

"Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with lesser environmental impact."

This report from the WHO is just one more reminder of the processed and red meat cancer link that's been known or suspected for quite a while, and just one more reason to lower the very high meat intakes typical of the American diet.

Dr. Ayala