Processed meats – cancer risk or hype

Bacon is perhaps the archetypical of processed meats – whether typical US or Canadian – it is one of the most identified foods by sight or smell.  Recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified  processed meats as a cancer risk, equating it to smoking.  How did they come to this decision, and can we infer the same risk about all meat – processed or not?

What did the WHO say?

The WHO evaluated data from about 800 studies of meat intake and cancer.  About 14 of them were designed well enough to analyze the information.  There were another 15 studies that had strong design to help with the decision-making.  Based on these 29 studies, they found evidence that processed meat increased cancer risk – specifically colon cancer by about 17%.  The data for red meat in general was not strong enough to make an association.

How should we interpret the WHO statement?

The association of processed meats and GI tract cancer has been known for quite some time.  In cultures where these foods are consumed regularly, stomach cancer has had an increased rate, leading to screening programs.  The statement from the WHO adds strength to the association, and should encourage people who have multiple risks for colon cancer to consider their diet as a controllable  risk factor.

What does this mean for most people?

The risks for colon cancer are age, smoking, a low fiber diet, family history and now processed meats.  Just like most health decisions we make, our diets should be modified based on our risks.  Moderation, or occasional consumption of processed meats is a better choice than daily consumption.  Of course, getting a colonoscopy based on your doctor’s recommendation further minimizes the risk of developing colon cancer!

Life is full of choices – moderation and a varied diet seems to be one of the better ones.  In the words of Joe Jackson, “Everything gives you cancer”

The path to wellness begins with a proper diagnosis.