Are you eating too much meat?

The headlines following the release of the World Health Organisation’s latest advice on meat and cancer this week made for pretty scary reading.

Even if you’re not a bacon sandwich fan, you’ve probably been left wondering if you’re eating too much meat.  This post will hopefully make things clearer.

What the report actually says

The new report comes from IARC – the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an independent body of experts tasked by the WHO to review the evidence between meat and cancer risk.

After reviewing around 800 pieces of evidence which looked at the association between meat intake and cancer across the globe they concluded there was enough evidence to class processed meat as a class one carcinogen (cancer forming agent), the same as tobacco, alcohol and sun-beds.

But just because tobacco and processed meat are in the same group, it doesn’t mean they carry the same risk.

So eating processed meat iSN’T as bad as smoking?

No. The category explains how likely something is to cause cancer, but not how many cancers it causes.  (Cancer Research UK have given a brilliant example here)

Let’s take tobacco and cancer. Cancer Research estimate smoking causes 19% of all cancers. If we all stopped smoking, there would be 64,400 fewer cases.

Now let’s take processed meat and cancer – remember they are in the same group. Cancer Research estimate red and processed meat cause 3% of cancers.  If we ate no red or processed meat, there would be 8,800 fewer cases.

So how much is my risk increased by?

IARC concluded if you eat 50 grams of processed meat a day (~3 rashers of bacon), your increase your risk of bowel cancer by 18%. This sounds a lot, but it’s relative risk i.e. relative to someone who doesn’t eat any.

Because the absolute risk of developing bowel cancer is low (about 6% in your lifetime) an 18% increase changes your risk from around 6% to 7%.

This about the same increase in risk as obesity or a lack of exercise. So if you eat lots of processed meat, reducing your intake of processed meat might help, but according to one expert, getting a colonoscopy, being  healthy weight and getting some exercise are equally as important in terms of risk reduction.

What counts as processed meat anyway?

This is not always explained very well. The WHO say processed meat is “any meat which has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked or has undergone a process to enhance flavour or improve preservation”.

So that means hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, beef jerky, canned meat and salami, but not mince or fresh hamburgers.

What about red meat?

The IARC report red meat as as probable, not convincing, cause – so less convincing, a class 2,  the same group as shift work and being a hairdresser.

For every 100g serving a day of red meat, the relative risk is 1.17, so around the same for processed meat. The number of people eating this much? Around 24% of men and 9% of women.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the way you cook meat makes a difference (in short, burnt or very well cooked meats likely carry more risk).

What does this mean for me?

Although this is a new report, it doesn’t actually change the existing advice which is;

  1. Limit processed meat (occasional is OK)
  2. Enjoy red meat in moderation (2-3 red meat meals /week is under the 500 gram cooked guide)
  3. Include some meat-less meals each week. Plant based proteins and fish are great options.

Data shows that on average, we eat about 71 grams of meat a day, which is in line with the recommendation to stay at 70 grams or less.

Bottom line if you like meat, it’s OK to keep eating it in moderation as part of a healthy diet, and if you choose not to eat it that’s ok too. And if you do eat lots of processed meat, you might want to think about cutting down.