a plate of bacon

Back Away from the Processed Meats

You already know that processed meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, sausages and some lunch meats, are unhealthy choices because they’re high in fat, cholesterol and sodium. But new information has proven that processed meats can do much more than bust your diet and increase your risk for heart attack and stroke: According to a study published recently in The Lancet, processed meats are carcinogenic (cancer causing) and regular consumption is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

In response to the new information, the World Health Organization (WHO) has added processed meats to its list of group one carcinogens, which already included other known cancer risks such as smoking, alcohol and asbestos. Additionally, the WHO’s controversial position also classified red meat consumption as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

“People’s reactions to the news vary from being extremely concerned, to the point where they’re saying they’ll turn to a completely organic diet, to people who aren’t worried at all and take the opinion of ‘well, something’s going to kill me,’” says Alfred DiStefano, M.D., medical oncologist with Arlington Cancer Center, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “What’s important to remember is to treat processed meats are just like any other health risk — and you should use moderation.”

How Bad Is It?

These determination of processed meat as a carcinogen was made by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARQ), a group of international cancer experts who evaluated more than 800 studies to determine which products could cause cancer. Products are classified into five groups:

  • Group 1: Carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2a: Probably carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 2b: Possibly carcinogenic to humans
  • Group 3: Not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans
  • Group 4: Probably not carcinogenic to humans

According to the IARQ, processed meats are classified as group one, while red meats have received group 2a classification.

Why Processed Meats?

Processed meats, which are defined by the WHO as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation,” are typically from the beef and pork families. However, poultry products can be processed, too.

Processed meats are considered particularly dangerous because of the chemicals they contain. Sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite, which are commonly used as preservatives in processed meats, are converted into nitrosamines — a known carcinogenic — by the body. Nitrosamines have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

According to the Q&A released by the WHO with its new information, the risk for colorectal cancer increases by 18 percent for each 1.8-ounce serving of processed meat eaten daily. For comparison, a regular-size hot dog weighs about 1.6 ounces.

“Pay attention to the labels on foods and limit foods that aren’t fresh,” Dr. DiStefano says. “The thing to remember is that we need to try — as often as possible — to eat the way our grandparents did and go back to the days of buying fresh meat and produce frequently.”

To find a Texas Health Physicians Group doctor who can help you lead a healthier lifestyle, visit THPG.org.

Physicians employed by Texas Health Physicians Group practice independently and are not employees of the hospital or Texas Health Resources.

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