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Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad WHO?

Adventist Health Fitness

Forks dropped in shock this week when the World Health Organization (WHO), through its International Agency on Research of Cancer (IARC), put processed meats on its list of known cancer-causing substances like tobacco smoke and plutonium. Red meat made the "probably" cancer-causing list.

According to the IARC, research shows that consuming 50 grams (a little less than 2 ounces) of processed meats-foods like bacon, hot dogs and salami-daily is connected to an increased risk of colorectal cancer in humans. Research also appears to show red meat, which is muscle meat from mammals, has a similar effect, says the IARC.

Category vs. Risk

Derek Anderson, MD

Derek Anderson, MD

So does this mean eating bacon is as bad as smoking and exposure to plutonium?

Definitely not, says Dr. Derek Anderson, a family physician with Adventist Health Medical Group – Gladstone. "Being in the same category doesn't mean processed meat has the same increased risk," Dr. Anderson explains.In fact, he adds, smoking gives you more than a 2,000 percent increased risk of cancer, compared to the 18 percent increase shown from processed meats.

But that doesn't mean you should ignore this report. "Most of us already know processed meats are bad for us," Dr. Anderson says. Most processed meats are loaded with salt, fat and preservatives.

And even though red meat was listed as "probably" causing cancer, its possible connection to cancer is sobering.

So What Do I Eat?

The important part this news can play in your life is reminding you to eat a balanced, healthy diet. To improve your diet and lower your risk of cancer and other health problems, including heart disease and obesity, Dr. Anderson recommends starting with a few basic improvements:

  • Limit processed foods: In addition to staying away from processed meats, it's healthier to limit all processed foods and eat foods as close to their natural state as possible.
  • Control your portions: One of the major points of the IARC's findings is that we need to limit our portions of red meat. An appropriate serving of steak, for instance, is 3 ounces-far smaller than the typical 8- or 12-ounce steak a restaurant will serve you.
  • Increase plant-based foods: It's especially important to add more servings of vegetables and fruit each day. If you're still hungry, grab some carrots or apple slices instead of another serving of meat, chips or candy.

Moving toward a plant-based diet will remove meat-based risks. Meat substitutes can serve as a bridge to a more plant-based diet, but they need to be used wisely, according to Dr. Anderson. "Watch labels for salt and fat content," he advises. "For soy-based products, look for ones that are non-GMO."

Cause for Change, Not Panic

Overall, the latest news about processed and red meats is a reminder we all can make changes in our diets to improve our health and reduce our risk of disease.

"This report shows there are things you can do to help minimize your risk getting certain types of cancer," Dr. Anderson says. "Moderation in all things still applies."


  1. The IARC categorizes cancer-causing substances based on the quality of available research on the connection to cancer rather than how much risk these substances pose. Research that is very good but not absolutely conclusive may, for instance, put a substance in a lower category, such as "probably" causing cancer, as the IARC categorized red meat.