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A Guide to the WHO Report on Processed Meats and Cancer

151103_meatYou’ve likely already heard the news: the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a well-respected agency within the World Health Organization (WHO), announced last month that processed meats, like hot dogs, ham and sausage, cause colon cancer. Before you reach any conclusions based on the initial announcement, I’ll take you through the basics of the report and how it actually affects you.

This is not the first time connections have been made between processed meats and cancer. Research has shown for years that certain types of cancer, such as cancers of the colon, prostate, and pancreas, are more common among people who eat an abundance of red and processed meat. What makes this new report different, and so buzzworthy, is how thorough it is. The IARC evaluated more than 800 studies of the association of cancer and eating processed or red meat, as well as cancer incidences within populations of diverse diets over the past 20 years.

The report officially classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen – the same category as smoking and alcohol – and red meat as a “probable carcinogen” due to limited evidence, known as Group 2. While this may sound alarming, these groups show the IARC’s confidence about processed and red meat causing cancer, not how much cancer they cause.

The report made no dietary recommendations, nor did it provide a quantity of “how much is too much.”

However, the IARC experts did conclude that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. In other words, there is an increased likelihood of being diagnosed with colon cancer at some point in the future if you consume high quantities of processed meat.

Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. This type of meat includes hot dogs, ham, sausage, corned, beef, and beef jerky, and can contain types of red meat. Red meat refers to mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, veal, pork, and lamb.

So, what should you do? A healthy, balanced diet can help you maintain good health in the long term. Research has shown that diet plays a large role in your risk for developing certain types of cancer, and in this case, colorectal cancer. For instance, a May 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine explains that a diet containing mostly fruits, vegetables, and moderate amounts of fish can help protect against developing colon cancer.

The IARC report does not say that a single meat-based meal is bad for your health. What it says is that regularly eating large amounts of processed meat and red meat over a long period of time is more likely to hurt you than help you when looking to live a long, healthy life.

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