Bacon causes cancer!? This is terrible news! The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report this week concluding that eating processed meat like hot dogs, ham and bacon raises the risk of colon cancer and that consuming other red meats “probably” raises the risk as well.
Bad news for meat lovers? Not necessarily. Experts not involved in the report said that the findings should give people more reason to “moderate” their intake of processed meat. But they cautioned that any increased risk of cancer was relatively small.
Although processed meats were placed in the same Group 1 category as asbestos, alcohol, and cigarettes, they do not share the same level of hazard. The risk attributed to smoking, for example, is many orders of magnitude greater than the risk associated with eating red meat.
The risks arise from chemicals produced by processing the meats and from cooking. Cooking at high temperatures or with the meat in direct contact with a flame can produce certain types of carcinogens, but the report said there was not enough data to support conclusions about whether the way meat was cooked affected cancer risks or about whether it was better to eat it raw, which carries its own risks.
“I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorize people into thinking that they should not eat any red meat at all,” said Dr. Ioannidis, who was not involved in the new report. “There’s some risk involved, but it’s much less than smoking or alcohol. I think it would be an exaggeration to say based on this that no one should be eating red or processed meat.”
Smoking causes a person risk of developing lung and other types of cancer to increase roughly 20-fold, resulting in about a million deaths worldwide per year. In comparison, a person’s risk of colon cancer rises by a factor of about 1.1 or 1.2 for every single serving of meat consumed per day. This could equate to about 30,000 deaths per year worldwide, or less claims Dr. Ioannidis.
Susan Gapstur, the vice president of epidemiology for the American Cancer Society, noted that colorectal cancer was the third-most commonly diagnosed cancer among men and women in the United States, and she called the panel’s conclusions “an important step” in helping people make more healthful dietary choices. The Cancer Society’s most recent nutrition and physical activity guidelines emphasize choosing fish, poultry or beans as alternatives to processed and red meat, and for those who eat red meat, the guidelines urge them to choose lean cuts and smaller portion sizes.
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