The whole country (or at least most of it) seems to have a love affair with bacon. Did you know that the average American eats 18lbs of bacon annually? People are getting really creative with bacon recipes like bacon donuts and bacon-infused whiskey. There are bacon songs on YouTube, bacon blogs, and bacon podcasts. You can stock up on bacon gifts for friends and family– bacon air fresheners, bacon pajama pants, bacon-scented underwear, bacon t-shirts, bacon key chains, and even molds to create bacon bowls.
In October 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a press release that may stop this national love affair with bacon in its tracks (or leave many heartbroken). The press release announced new classifications for both red meat and processed meat consumption in relation to cancer risk based on scientific findings from over 800 studies. Here are the new classifications per the press release.
“probably carcinogenic to humans(Group 2A), based onlimited evidencethat the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans andstrongmechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.”
“carcinogenic to humans(Group 1), based onsufficient evidencein humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” 1
Red meat includes beef, pork, veal, lamb to name a few. Processed meats are meats that have been salted, cured, smoked or processed in some way to change flavor and preserve the meat for longer. Examples of processed meats include hot dogs, ham, sausage, and of course, bacon. The IARC groups describe the strength of the scientific evidence of a food causing cancer. These groups do not assess the level of risk.
The connection between bacon and cancer isn’t new. The American Institute for Cancer Research and American Cancer Society for years have warned that eating processed foods and excessive red meat over time is associated with increased risk for developing cancer, especially colon cancer and possibly other types of cancers such as stomach, pancreatic, and prostate cancer. The AIRC gives specific recommendations for cancer prevention around meats: avoid processed meat and eat 18 ounces or less cooked red meat weekly. 2The ACS suggests that if you do eat meat choose small servings and lean cuts such as loin. ACS also recommends that red meat be eaten in moderate amounts of two to three ounces less than three times weekly. In regard to processed meat, ACS recommends occasional intake at most (less than weekly). 3Most importantly balance your meat intake with other healthy food groups like whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, veggies, low-fat dairy, and healthy oils. A balanced diet plays a big role in reducing cancer risk!
Eating 50 grams of processed meat daily (about 3 slices of cooked bacon) increases a person’s risk of colon cancer by 18 percent. The National Cancer Institute says the average American’s lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 4.5 percent. If that average American ate 3 slices of bacon daily, your lifetime risk would increase 18 percent from 4.5 to 5.3 percent.
So, should you stop eating red meat and processed meat all together? Ultimately, that’s between you and your healthcare team. Although there is risk in eating red meat and processed meat, there are healthy components in lean red meat especially when you need to increase your intake of calories and certain nutrients such as iron, protein, zinc, and B vitamins.
Here are some tips to reduce your intake of red meat, processed meat, and yes, bacon:
Switch to lean meats. Look for words on the label that may help you choose lean meats: loin, 90% lean, eye of round, round, sirloin, and flank.
Make meat a small treat, not the centerpiece of your meal. AICR suggests that fish, poultry, meat, or low-fat dairy should cover 1/3 (or less) of your dinner plate. The other 2/3 of your meal is recommended to be plant foods like veggies, fruits, whole grains, and beans.
Choose a meatless meal two to three times weekly. Talk to your friends who are good cooks for some vegetarian dish suggestions. Spend time in the meat-free areas of your grocery store. Think about those comfort foods that can be made without that meat such as beans and rice, lentils and cornbread, black bean burgers, cheese enchiladas, veggie fajitas, eggplant lasagna and more.
Re-size your meat portions. How big is a two to three ounce portion of cooked meat? You may not have a meat frequency problem. You may instead have a portion distortion problem. You may choose to eat red meat still but in smaller portions to keep your risk of cancer in check.
Throw out processed meats if they are taking over your meals. Go for fresh meats instead. Take them up a notch by adding aromatic seasonings and spices like clove, ginger, curry, turmeric, onions, garlic, and low-sodium broths to keep the cured, smoky flavors in your foods without the increased risk of cancer.
If your love for bacon (or other processed meats) is too strong to break completely then aim to eat bacon less often, especially if you have other cancer risks like strong family history, large body size, history of tobacco use, and sedentary lifestyle. Start slowly. Back away from your bacon habit by eliminating it one day at a time.
1) International Agency for Research on Cancer. Press Release. Oct. 25, 2015. https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf.
2) “Bacon, Processed Meats a Cause of Cancer Your FAQs.” The World Cancer Research Fund, American Institute for Cancer Research. www.aicr.org. Last accessed 30 Nov 2015.
3) Grant, BL, et. al., “The Complete Guide to Nutrition for Cancer Survivors: Eating Well, Stay Well During and After Cancer.” 2nd Edition. American Cancer Society, 2010.