You may have heard or read information about how eating meat may cause cancer. Our goal is to provide you more information about this claim so you can make informed food choices. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends people limit their consumption of red meat and processed meat. This is because there is convincing evidence linking red meat and processed meat consumption to an increased risk for colorectal cancer. It is recommended to limit red meat to 18 ounces or less (cooked) per week. Red meat includes beef, pork, and lamb.
Below are possible reasons why red meat may increase cancer risk:
- Red meat contains the heme form of iron, which can damage the lining of the colon.
- Red meat stimulates the production of N-nitroso compounds in the gastrointestinal tract, which are cancer-causing agents.
- Cooking meat at high temperatures produces two carcinogens: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Processed meats of any kind and any amount are shown to increase cancer risk. Processed meat has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding other chemical preservatives and includes sausage, hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats. It is recommended to avoid processed meats as much as possible since consumption of any amount is linked to increased colorectal cancer risk.
Below are possible reasons why processed meats may increase cancer risk:
- The processing of meat often involves adding nitrites that may form cancer-causing N-nitroso compounds.
- Processing may also involve smoking, which can lead to formation of cancer-causing PAHs
- Processing usually involves adding salt, which can promote development of stomach cancer.
- Heme iron found in processed red meat may also contribute to increased cancer risk.
How do I decrease red meat and processed meat consumption?
There are many protein-containing foods other than red meat and processed meats available. Poultry, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, other minimally processed soy foods, low fat dairy products, and nut butters are protein-rich alternatives. Below are some tips to help you cut down on your red meat and processed meat consumption:
- Try replacing processed breakfast meats like sausage and bacon with protein-containing foods like eggs, low fat dairy or peanut butter.
- Instead of having a sandwich made with processed deli meat like ham or salami, choose tuna, chicken, egg, or hummus as a filling more often.
- Try vegetable toppings or chicken rather than pepperoni or sausage on pizza.
- Choose to substitute a beef hamburger with ground turkey, ground chicken, or a black bean veggie burger.
- Aim to include more meatless meals in your diet. Try planning a meal around beans or lentils instead of red meat once per week.
How should I cook my meat?
Being aware of how you are cooking your meats may also be beneficial in reducing your risk of cancer. Cooking meats at a high temperature (such as grilling) can possibly lead to HCA and PAH formation. Instead of grilling or smoking, try baking, roasting, broiling, or poaching. Marinating meat before grilling or microwaving for two minutes before grilling or smoking can cut down on the formation of carcinogenic compounds.