Should I be avoiding red and processed meats?

In October 2015, The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans and the consumption of processed meat as carcinogenic to humans. Does this mean that I should avoid red and processed meats?

What is red meat?

Red meat is unprocessed mammalian muscle meat such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, horse or goat.

What is processed meat?

Processed meat is any meat (often beef or pork, but also chicken or turkey) that has been preserved by salting, curing, fermentation, or smoking.

What type(s) of cancer are associated with the consumption of red and processed meat?

Most studies have examined the association between the consumption of red and processed meat and colorectal cancer. Some studies have looked at pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer and cancer of the stomach.

Does this mean that eating red and processed meat causes cancer?

No. Research studies in humans typically look at associations. This means that individuals with a high intake of red or processed meat were more likely to develop colorectal cancer than those with a low intake. This does not prove that consumption of these foods causes cancer as there are many other lifestyle factors that studies cannot control for.

What is the risk of developing colorectal cancer?

The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that 1 in 14 Canadian men and 1 in 16 Canadian women will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime. This means that they estimate that 6-7% of the population will develop colorectal cancer in their lifetime. The IARC reports that one’s risk of developing colorectal cancer increases by 17% for each 100g increase in red meat intake per day.

While a 17% increase sounds large, let’s take a closer look at the numbers. Let’s say you currently eat 50g of red meat per day. That would be roughly equivalent to one 12oz steak or pork chop per week, or three ½ cup servings of ground beef per week. Based on this intake, you would be considered to have a low intake of red meat and you might have an average risk of colorectal cancer (6-7%). If you were to triple your intake of red meat to 150g per day (so three large steaks or 6 servings of ground beef per week), your lifetime risk would rise to 7-8%. This is certainly an increase, but it still represents a relatively low risk. Red meat is really just one piece of the puzzle. There are many lifestyle changes that you can make to decrease your risk of cancer.

So, should I be avoiding red and processed meats?

Red meat is a good source of bioavailable protein, iron and zinc. There is no need to cut it out completely, and the information put forth by the IARC really does not change recommendations put forth in the past that asked individuals to limit red meat to 2-3 servings per week.

If you are eating red meat more than three times per week, try decreasing the amount used in recipes and add lentils or beans in it’s place. For example, use less meat and more beans when making a chili, tacos, or pasta sauce. The benefits of this are three fold – your consumption of red meat will decrease, your fibre intake will increase (which may help decrease cancer risk), and you will save money.

What else can I do to decrease my risk of colorectal cancer?

  • Bake meat or cook in a frying pan over medium heat more often than cooking at high heat (pan-frying, grilling, barbecuing). Cooking meat over high temperatures produces more compounds that are known or suspected to be carcinogenic.
  • Instead of ham or roast beef, try using cooked chicken breast, hummus, or fish on sandwiches
  • Increase your intake of  fruit and veggies – aim for at least 2 cups of veggies and 3 pieces of fruit per day
  • Limit alcohol intake to no more than 1-2 drinks per day
  • Incorporate movement into your day

If I decrease my intake of red meat, how can I make sure I’m getting enough iron?

  • Just like with red meat, dark coloured and red legumes (black beans, lentils, red kidney beans) are rich sources of iron. Combine these with a good source of vitamin C (broccoli, white potato, citrus fruit, red peppers, tomato) to optimize absorption
  • Add pumpkin seeds and hemp hearts to salads and snack mixes
  • Add cooked spinach to rice and pasta dishes
  • Add cocoa powder to smoothies 

If I decrease my intake of red meat, how can I make sure I’m getting enough zinc?

  • Many of the iron rich options listed above (spinach, pumpkin seeds, cocoa powder) are also great sources of zinc
  • Add wheat germ to oatmeal or baked goods 

Helpful resources

Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada. Accessed June 23, 2016