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Lately, the World Health Organization (WHO) released information indicating that processed meats led to an increased risk in developing cancer. More specifically, they stated that 50g of processed meat a day, which is less than two slices of bacon, lead to an 18% increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.

What is processed meat?

Processed meat has been modified in some form for the purposes of extending shelf life or to enhance the taste of the product. The main methods of processing meats are through smoking, curing, or adding salt or preservatives. Processed meats include bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, beef jerky and ham as well as canned meat and meat-based sauces.

Meat: To Eat or Not To Eat? 1

What about red meat?

According to the report, “muscle meat such as beef, veal, pork, lamb and mutton, among others was “probably” carcinogenic based on “limited evidence.” It said the association was observed mainly for colorectal cancer, but that diets high in red meat were also linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer.

Should I cut out meat?

I know that it’s human nature to cut out something all together when it is deemed “harmful,” especially when linked to cancer. However, it is important to look into the details of the studies performed and pay attention to the types and quality of meat consumed.

The findings of the WHO were particularly linked to processed meats. This should come as no surprise, as I have often talked about the importance of eating WHOLE FOODS in their NATURAL form. Processed meats are just that: processed.

The American Institute of Cancer Research stated the following:

Why Does Processed Meat Increase Cancer Risk?

It’s not yet clear exactly why processed meats increase risk for colorectal cancer. Researchers are currently exploring a few possible mechanisms, including:

  1. Nitrates/Nitrites: These are added to processed meats to preserve color and prevent spoilage. In lab studies, these compounds form cancer-causing compounds, carcinogens.
  2. Smoking: Smoked meats contain PAHs (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons), substances that are formed at high-heat and considered carcinogenic.
  3. Cooking at high temperatures: Meats cooked at high temperatures can also contain PAHs and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), which can damage DNA.
  4. Heme iron: The heme iron found in red meat may damage the lining of the colon.

What about nitrate/nitrite-free turkey or other deli meats?

These products are relatively new. At this point, more research is needed to distinguish between nitrate/nitrite-free processed meats and the typical hot dogs and luncheon meats with added nitrates and nitrites. Sausage and other processed meat made from turkey or chicken is still smoked, salted, or cured so it is also included among the processed meats to carefully limit.

Ok, so what does this mean?

To  put things into perspective, smoking increases a person’s risk for developing lung and other types of cancer 20-fold, while risks for developing colorectal cancer increase by 1.1 or 1.2 for every serving of processed meat consumed in a given day.

It is also important to note that experts say the increased cancer risk due to processed meat intake is relatively small and therefore, they recommend using the findings as incentive to “moderate” intake.

What about red meat?

According to The Lancet paper, “red meat contains “high biological-value proteins and important micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron and zinc.”

This is where the type and quality of meat is key. Conventional meat is often filled with antibiotics and hormones that can have a negative impact on metabolic function. However, when meat is sourced from 100%  grass-fed cattle, it is loaded with essential healthy fats and nutrients!

According to the Mayo Clinic, Grass-fed beef generally comes from cattle that eat only grass and other foraged foods throughout their lives. Conversely, conventional beef cattle eat a diet that includes grains, such as corn. The reason this is important is that the difference in the diets of the cattle changes the nutrients and fats you get from eating the different types of beef.

Grass-fed beef may have some heart-health benefits that other types of beef don’t have. When compared with other types of beef, grass-fed beef may have:

  • Less total fat
  • More heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids
  • More conjugated linoleic acid, a type of fat that’s thought to reduce heart disease and cancer risks
  • More antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E

Don’t be fooled by the “organic” label or other terms such as “all-natural” or “pasture raised.” Those don’t guarantee that the meat has been 100% grass fed. Labeling laws allow products to display these terms even if cows spend little or no time outdoors in a pasture setting.  According to World’s Healthiest Foods , even the term “grass-fed” is not sufficient since grass-fed cows may have spent a relatively small amount of time grass feeding. Many times, cows are fed grass but “grain-finished” to “fatten them up” before slaughter. The standard to look for on the label is “100% grass-fed.” Talk to your grocer or the cow farmer and find out how the animals were actually raised.

As with fruits and veggies, buy local! Organic, 100% grass-fed beef may be available from local farms with small flocks, which provide a natural lifestyle for their cows. Two websites that can help you find small local farms in your area arewww.localharvest.org and www.eatwild.com.

Key Take-Aways

When it comes to nutrition and cancer, it’s the healthy choices you make every day that matter most. The occasional hot dog at a baseball game or ham on a holiday is unlikely to increase cancer risk.

According to Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute “Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health.”

The American Institute of Cancer recommends filling at least 2/3rds of your plate with veggies, fruits, whole grains and beans to reduce cancer risk. Remember how I said that you should aim for 7-9 servings of veggies per day?

This is yet another reason why! Some key power-foods to reduce risk include:

  • Dark Leafy Greens
  • Cruciferous Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts)
  • Blueberries
  • Apples
  • Flaxseed
  • Cherries
  • Beans/Legumes, Lentils
  • Whole grains (oats, quinoa, barley, etc)

Rather than using these reports to limit the spectrum of foods you eat, jump on the opportunity to try new things! For weeks I’ve been providing you with both animal and plant-based protein meals/snacks as well as vegetable recipes. NOW is the time to give them a try! Who knows what new foods you’ll discover you love….all while decreasing your cancer risk.


  1. http://www.aicr.org/enews/2014/08-august/faq-processed-meat-and.html?referrer=https://www.google.com/
  2. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-disease/expert-answers/grass-fed-beef/faq-20058059
  3. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/10/26/451211964/bad-day-for-bacon-processed-red-meats-cause-cancer-says-who
  4. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/health/report-links-some-types-of-cancer-with-processed-or-red-meat.html?_r=0
  5. http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?tname=foodspice&dbid=141


About Danielle Sikorski

Danielle is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and Personal Trainer residing in Anchorage, Alaska. She received her B.S. in Nutrition, Dietetics and Foods Science from California State University at Northridge. As an athlete, Danielle was initially drawn to Nutrition because she desired to learn how to best fuel her body for optimal performance. However, after becoming a Dietitian, her focus has broadened. After a Lyme and autoimmune disease diagnosis, she has learned the role that food can play in healing the body. She now works with clients with a variety of goals ranging from sports performance, Food Intolerance, Autoimmue, to Weight loss. ******In her spare time she loves running to clear her mind and also enjoys cooking with her husband. ---------------EDUCATION & CERTIFICATIONS: • B.S. in Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Science • Internship at University Medical Center in Las Vegas, NV specializing in Medical Nutrition Therapy in the ICU, Pediatric ICU, Cancer Center, Cardiovascular Disease and Diabetes Education • Internship at W.I.C. specializing in pre and post-natal Nutrition • RD, RDN by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics