LONG ISLAND, NY – Last week the World Health Organization released a statement classifying processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meats as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” This is bad news for all the meat-eaters out there, including me! But what does it all mean? How much do I have to worry about getting cancer from eating meat?
First off, processed meat (e.g., bacon, hot dog, sausage) and red meat (e.g., beef, veal, lamb, pork) seem to both lead to excess cancer in people who consume these items regularly. (Notice that pork is considered a red meat.) What kind of cancers are we talking about here? Mostly colon cancer, followed by stomach, pancreatic, and prostate cancers. The risk of colon cancer seems to be increased the most, probably since the foods in question contain harmful carcinogens that can cause damage to human DNA leading to cancer. These cancer-causing substances are at the highest concentration in the colon and stomach since that is where the food is. Grilling, frying, and smoking the meat seems to increase the amount of carcinogens as well.
What qualifies as regular consumption? For red meat it is at least 100 grams per day (about 3.5 ounces of steak), and for processed meat it is 50 grams per day (about one hot dog). There is an estimated 18% increase in cancer (mostly colon cancer) with eating at least that much red or processed meat per day. This sounds like a huge risk, but it’s not that simple. The risk of colon cancer in the average person is 5% over a lifetime, so if we increase this 5% risk by 18% that only brings the risk up to 5.9%. In reality, eating a good amount of red or processed meat may raise the risk of colon cancer by less than one-percent.
At the end of the day, how much do you really need to worry about this information? If you eat red and processed meat sparingly (once a week or so), then you probably don’t have to worry too much about it. However if you are eating the stuff every day or in huge amounts, maybe it is time to introduce a little moderation into your diet. Have some fruits and vegetables every once and a while. Most importantly, since colon cancer starts out as a growth called a polyp, make sure you have a colonoscopy when you turn fifty years old. Polyps can be removed and colon cancer can be prevented. Then after your colonoscopy you can head to the local diner and have a nice plate of pancakes, eggs, and plenty of bacon.
Dr. Frederick Gandolfo is a board certified gastroenterologist practicing in Lake Success, NY, and affiliated with Winthrop-University Hospital. He attended SUNY Stony Brook School of Medicine, and completed training in internal medicine and gastroenterology at NYU. He is a general gastroenterologist with special expertise in colonoscopy, inflammatory bowel disease, and colon cancer prevention.
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