Nutrition-wise blog

Another look at meat and cancer risk

By Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D. October 30, 2015

In terms of weight loss, research shows that many types of diets, including low-carb and high-protein diets, can produce results and even lower heart disease risk factors, such as cholesterol levels, in the short term.

But over time, adherence to these strict diets drops off, even for meat lovers on high-protein diets. The dieters eventually find they miss their fruits, veggies and grains. Perhaps for good reason, as data supports the benefits of a plant-based diet for improving long-term health by lowering both cancer and heart disease risk.

A report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, strengthened the argument for following a plant-based diet. Their review of over 800 studies concluded that processed meat is a carcinogen and red meat is probably a carcinogen. Carcinogens are compounds that cause cancer.

The report calculated that each 50-gram portion (less than 2 ounces) of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Previous studies have suggested the portion is smaller — less than 20 g a day. (The report did not provide a similar analysis for red meat.)

What does 20 g of processed meat look like? More specifically, what does this mean for you and your Saturday morning breakfast or favorite deli sandwich? A cooked slice of bacon is 8 to 16 g. An average slice of salami is 9 to 12 g, and a thin round of pepperoni is about 2 g.

You may not be ready to give up meat yet, though, and that's okay. In small amounts, meat may be beneficial for health. Meat is an important source of nutrients, such as protein, iron, zinc and several B vitamins.

If you eat meat, keep these tips in mind for your health:

  • Go lean. Choose leaner cuts and trim any visible fat.
  • Cook, don't char. Cook meat to safe temperatures to prevent foodborne illness. But avoid high temperatures and don't char the meat — both can produce carcinogens.
  • Practice moderation. Think of meat as a flavorful accent rather than the main focus of meals. Emphasize vegetables and whole grains, and limit meat to a few ounces once or twice a day.
  • Expand your proteins. Many foods other than meat provide protein — beans, lentils, dairy, soy, eggs, fish and nuts.

To your health,

Originally published April 17, 2013. Updated October 30, 2015.

Oct. 30, 2015