Red and Processed Meat: What Does the Research Say?


Protein is an important component of a healthy diet; we need protein to build muscle, maintain our immune system, and heal after injury.  It is important to eat the right amount of protein every day, but there is a large body of research that shows that the type of protein you are eating is just as important.  According to the USDA, the biggest source of protein in the American diet is red and processed meats, with the average person eating a whopping 73 pounds a year as of 2017! Keep reading to see if your typical lunch could be affecting your cancer risk. 

What is Red Meat and Processed Meat? 

Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb, goat, and game meats such as venison.  Processed meats are any meats that have been preserved by smoking, salting, curing, or adding chemical additives.  The complete list is long, but notably includes bacon, sausage, prosciutto, hot dogs, and lunchmeat like ham and bologna.

How Does it Affect Cancer Risk? 

Red meat is likely to increase the risk for colon cancer, and there is some evidence linking it to the risk of lung, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.  Processed meat, however, is shown to have a much stronger tie to colon cancer with some evidence showing ties to stomach, lung and pancreatic cancers and there is even some link to breast and prostate cancers.  The Global Burden of Disease Project determined recently that each year, 34,000 cancer deaths globally could be traced to processed meat intake.

There are a range of ways that red and processed meats could increase the risk of cancer.  First, studies report that the way meat is broken down in the gut can induce stress and mutations in cells lining the intestines, leading to higher risk of colon cancer.  Also, it is common to grill meats like hamburgers and hot dogs.  This high heat and smoke can cause different chemicals linked to cancer to form on the meats, which may be carcinogenic in humans. Last, processed meats often contain nitrates, which cause DNA damage and have been shown in animal models to be carcinogenic.

An indirect cause related to red and processed meat is that a high meat diet is often low in many fruits and vegetables. The lack of produce in the diet means there is a lack of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making the immune system less effective at defending against any mutations which may occur.

How Much Meat Should I Be Eating?

Current guidelines from the American Institute for Cancer Research suggest limiting red meat intake to 12-18 oz per week, or eating it three times a week or less. This would look like having carnitas tacos on Tuesday, a sirloin steak on Friday night, and Sunday lamb chops. 

It is important to note that the recommendation is to LIMIT consumption of red meat, not ELIMINATE it entirely. This is good news for all the burger lovers out there.  Red meat is a good source of iron, B12, and protein – it’s not all bad!

Multiple organizations such as the WHO and AICR suggest avoiding processed meats ENTIRELY to keep your cancer risk as low as possible. Choosing chicken sausage or turkey bacon might improve the nutritional value for certain cardiac diseases, but it still is considered processed meat when thinking about cancer risk. 

So What Can I Eat?

Has this article left you scratching your head, wondering what is left on the menu? There are many options for protein left, including:

  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Eggs
  • Fish
  • Shellfish
  • Beans and legumes
  • Plant proteins such as tofu, tempeh, seitan or edamame

Take this moment as a good opportunity to evaluate your meal choices, make some substitutions, and try something new! Remember, you don’t have to avoid all red meat; just choose it three times a week or less.  And whatever protein you choose, remember that a balanced plate is ¼ protein, ¼ starchy food, and ½ vegetables. 

Have questions about how to switch up your proteins for best cancer protection? The Registered Dietitians at OncoPower are here to help you make healthy changes to your diet. Join today to get your cancer-related questions answered. 

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