Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

The beef about beef consumption and cancer risk

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This week, headlines screamed about the dangers of consuming processed meat. Let’s drill down to see what this really means.

The World Health Organization defines processed meat as meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked or uses other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Some types of processed meat classified as Group 1 carcinogens include bacon, hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky and canned meat.

Sharing the category of “Group 1″ carcinogens are cigarette smoking and asbestos. Group 1 carcinogens are those that the World Health Organization describes as  having “sufficient evidence” on humans that their consumption causes colorectal cancer. The fact that tobacco and asbestos are in the same category as red meat consumption doesn’t mean that consuming red meat is as bad for you as smoking or working or living in an environment with asbestos. It just means that both have been sufficiently linked to cancer to qualify as a group 1 carcinogen.

Red meat consumption, in general, was categorized as a “Group 2A” carcinogen, meaning that there is limited evidence that red meat consumption causes cancer in humans, with additional “strong mechanistic evidence” that supports the assertion that red meat causes cancer. Red meat, which includes beef, veal, pork and lamb is therefore classified as probably carcinogenic to humans.”


Here are four things to ponder:

  • Quantity – do you eat a 12 oz steak at one sitting or the recommended 4-6 ounces?
  • Frequency – how often do you eat this- once or twice a week or more often?
  • Quality- do you eat grass-fed or organic beef or lamb from a known butcher? Controversial evidence exists on the comparison of this type of beef for cancer risk – more on this in next week’s blog.
  • Do you understand what relative risk vs. absolute risk is? Clarification is below.

“Jonathan Schoenfeld, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Radiation Oncology helps put the risk in context:  The statistic doesn’t mean that eating 50 grams of processed meat daily causes you to have an 18% total chance of developing cancer — it means you’re 18% more likely to develop cancer relative to whatever your initial, absolute risk already was. For example, if you had a 10% risk of developing colon cancer to begin with, and you ate 50 grams of processed meat every day, your risk would increase by 18%.  Eighteen percent of 10% is 1.8% — so your total risk would increase to 11.8%. That’s not trivial, but not a staggering rise, either.  In contrast, smoking is thought to increase the risk of developing lung cancer by about 25 times. That’s the same as saying the risk increases by 2,500%.” See http// for more details.

It’s instructive to assess your absolute risk. Factors that influence your chances of getting colorectal cancer are:

  • Older than 50 years.
  • African-American race
  • A personal history of colorectal cancer or polyps.
  • Inflammatory intestinal conditions like colitis and Crohn’s disease
  • Inherited syndromes that increase colon cancer risk.
  • Family history of colon cancer and colon polyps.
  • Low-fiber, high-fat diet.
  • A sedentary lifestyle- once again, go exercise!
  • Diabetes.
  • Obesity.
  • Smoking.
  • Heavy use of Alcohol.
  • Radiation therapy for cancer.
 So what’s the take-away? The same message you hear about so many other lifestyle choices applies – moderation.  If you eat reasonable portions of snacks and meals made up primarily of fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, vegetables and grains, you’re all set. Poultry and fish are also part of a healthy diet. If you occasionally eat processed and/or red meat, not more than 2 ounces a day, and no more than 1.1 pounds a week, you’re not increasing your chance of getting cancer. If you keep it in perspective, you’re likely not consuming an amount that will put you at higher risk. As the acclaimed food journalist Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, says, ” Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much”. Additionally, exercise plays an important role in reducing cancer risk. Here’s to eating wisely and staying active!

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