Red meat has lost its popularity on many people’s dinner table over the last decade. Despite this, red meat consumption overall is still increasing mainly due to a large increase in lower and middle income countries. Admittedly a lot of us have found ourselves on either side of the controversy over whether we should be eating meat at all, at some point in the recent past. One thing that most people will agree upon though is that processed meats (hot dogs, ham and sausage) should not be an important part of anyone’s diet and correctly so. We go a bit further and say that red meat shouldn’t be an important part of anyone’s diet either and possible not a part of it at all.

As a matter of fact most scientific evidence that has been collected in the past few decades indicates that colon cancer is more common amongst people who eat a lot of  processed meat.

Red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat. Processed meat is meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting, fermenting, or adding chemical preservatives. Examples of processed meat include bacon, ham, sausage and hot dogs.

The result of the ongoing scientific research on the impact of red meat and processed meat and their role in the development of cancer brought the matter to the attention of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC is a well-known and respected agency of the World Health Organization. The IARC evaluated more than 800 studies that looked at the association of cancer with eating processed meat or red meat. The studies looked at more than a dozen types of cancer in populations with diverse diets over the past 20 years.

The IARC classified processed meat as a definite cause of cancer, or a Group 1 carcinogen – the same group that includes smoking and alcohol. The agency says that the risk rises with the amount consumed — each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

The evidence so far suggests that it’s probably the processing of the meat, or chemicals naturally present within it, that increases cancer risk.

“Processed meats fall into the same category that cigarette smoking does with lung cancer,” Dr. Khorana says. “In other words, it’s an item that causes cancer at some point in the future if you consume high amounts.”

Confidence level

The IARC classified red meat as “probably” carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. This was based on limited evidence that eating red meat causes cancer in humans and strong evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect. Previous studies also have shown that grilling or smoking meat can create suspected carcinogens.

While the IARC said red meat contains some important nutrients, it still noted that red meat has an established link to colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers.

What to do

Research has shown that what you eat can play a large role in your risk for developing colorectal cancer. For example, one recent study showed that a diet of mostly fruits, vegetables and a moderate amount of fish appears to offer the most protection against developing colorectal cancer.

The study showed a pesco-vegetarian diet — dominated by fruits and vegetables and including a moderate amount of fish —  is associated with a 45 percent reduced risk for colorectal cancers compared to people whose diets include meat. A good example of a pesco-vegetarian diet is the Mediterranean diet.

“A healthy diet is good for your overall outcomes and your cardiovascular health. It turns out now that it’s also good for preventing cancer,” Dr. Khorana says.