I was on CBC News Network yesterday to talk about breaking news from the World Health Organization: processed meat has now been listed as a carcinogen, a substance that causes cancer. This list also includes tobacco and asbestos.
When I arrived at the studio, the security guard asked what I was being interviewed about. When I told him he exclaimed, "You're not gonna be too popular at the local deli now!" As a foodie and a dietitian, I was crushed. I gotta have my Canadian bacon from time to time.
So is bacon the new smoking?
Not exactly. As I tell my private clients and my patients at The Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, and as I said to news anchor Andrew Nichols, who interviewed me for the live CBC national newscast, it's your overall diet and lifestyle that matters. If you follow my 80 twenty rule and eat healthy foods such as vegetables, beans and lentils, fruit, nuts and seeds, fish and lean poultry 80 per cent of the time, you can have some of the less healthy options 20 per cent of the time. Whether it's sugar or bacon, no diet is 100 per cent perfect.
This helps put things into perspective: 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide are linked to diets high in processed meat. Compare that to smoking, which is linked to 1 million cancer death a year. So bacon isn't quite in the same league as cigarettes, but the impact on cancer risk is still significant.
Andrew also asked me if I was surprised by the WHO announcement.
In a word: no! I told him that groups like Dietitians of Canada and the World Cancer Research Fund have recommended limiting processed meat for years because of the link to higher risk of stomach and colorectal cancers. Processed meats are also high saturated fat and sodium, which could have negative impacts on heart health if eaten regularly.
However, no need to never enjoy a sausage again. Cancer isn't caused by a single food: it's the overall diet that makes an impact.
How much processed meat is too much? Having 50 grams a day (1.75 ounces) or about 2 slices of salami or 1 hot dog increases lifetime colorectal cancer risk by 18 per cent. The more processed meat you have, the higher the risk.
My take: having a couple of strips of bacon on the weekend is fine. But if you're having salami in your sandwich every day and packing your child's lunch with bologna, it may be time to swap in some healthier alternatives.
I recommend roasting a chicken for Sunday dinner and using leftovers in sandwiches instead of cold cuts. Tuna or egg salad with Greek yogurt or hummus are other great options. See my post on healthy lunch and snack options for kids of all ages for more tasty and potentially cancer-fighting lunch ideas!
What about red meat?
If processed meat is something to avoid, red meat is something to limit. But again, it's all about the amounts you're having and what else you're eating the rest of the time. The World Health Organization has listed red meat as being "probably carcinogenic" as it may increase the risk of pancreatic, colon and prostate cancers.
Based on the current literature, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends limiting red meat to 18 ounces or less a week to lower the risk of colorectal cancer. If you picture three ounces of red meat as being about the size of a deck of cards, that means you could have that amount six times a week.
Make "Meatless Mondays" a bigger part of your week
Even better for reducing cancer risk? Replace some of that red meat with foods that come from plants such as beans, lentils, chickpeas and a sprinkling of nuts and seeds. Plant-based diets can help fight cancer by not only replacing some of the saturated fat from animal-based foods and red meat, but are loaded with cancer-fighting phytochemicals, antioxidants and fibre.
Processed meat defined:
Red meat defined: Beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat.
The WHO report also encouraged people to avoid cooking meat at high temperatures such as pan frying and grilling, as this creates chemicals linked to cancer.
For tips on safer grilling, check out my video on how to prevent some of these carcinogens from forming. Hint: marinades that contain antioxidants can reduce formation of these potential cancer-causing chemicals by over 90 per cent!
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