GW Researcher Says Report Linking Processed Meat to Cancer Risk is ‘Very Legitimate’

World Health Organization warns that processed meats such as hot dogs, bacon and ham could increase risk for colon cancer.

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(L-R)Sausage, bacon, hotdogs and ham are among the processed meats that the World Health Organization linked to an increased risk for colon cancer in a report released last week.
November 04, 2015

Cancer is the modern disease that lurks in our everyday lives—a hushed whisper over dinner about a recent diagnosis, a thousand-person march for awareness and stark labs dedicated to researching its many faces and causes.

Last Monday, the World Health Organization named processed meat the newest culprit in increasing risk for cancer.

The WHO International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reviewed existing research studies and found that hot dogs, bacon, ham and other processed and red meats are linked to an increased risk for colon cancer. Although the research shows a correlation that identifies a “slight” increase for risk, the public and the meat industry have had strong reactions.

Cancer epidemiologist Kim Robien, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health, says the report confirms longstanding research.

Dr. Robien, who is also a registered dietitian and certified specialist in oncology nutrition, shared insight on the WHO’s findings with George Washington Today writer Brittney Dunkins:                                                                       

Q: How legitimate is the WHO IARC’s report that processed meat correlates with a high risk of cancer, specifically colon cancer?
A: The report is very legitimate, but this is not new information. Studies have consistently shown an association between diets high in red and processed meats and many types of cancers, especially colon and rectal cancers. Red and processed meat intake has also been associated with higher risk of heart disease, stroke and hypertension. The dietary guidelines from many health and professional organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, also have long recommended limiting intake of red meat and avoiding processed meat

Q: What gaps exist? Should other health factors be taken into account when considering cancer risk and its relation to meat consumption?
A: No real “gaps” exist, but everyone should recognize that the WHO IARC report is only describing the strength of the scientific evidence, not the degree of carcinogenicity. Cigarette smoking is far more carcinogenic than eating a serving of red or processed meats. For example, the WHO report found that the risk of colorectal cancer was 18 percent higher for individuals who consume an average of 50 grams—which equates to six slices of bacon or one hot dog —of processed meats per day compared with individuals who do not eat processed meats. Comparatively, a meta-analysis by Harvard researchers found that individuals who smoked an average of 40 cigarettes—two packs—per day had a 38 percent higher risk of colorectal cancer compared with non-smokers.

Q: Will the WHO IARC report affect meat consumption?
A: I don’t really expect the WHO report to have a significant impact on red or processed meat intake in the United States. This is just the latest of many reports linking red and processed meat consumption to adverse health effects.

However, there has been a steady decline in red meat intake since the early 1980s, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. There is no good data on the frequency of processed meat consumption at the population level.

 



"It is absolutely recommended to decrease—if not completely eliminate—processed meat intake to prevent cancer..."

Kim Robien,  GW Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences Associate Professor


 

Q: Do you predict a rise in “unprocessed meat” consumption or a decline in processed meat consumption?
A: My guess is that animal-based protein consumption will continue to decrease as American consumers become increasingly concerned about the chemical inputs required for food animal production such as antibiotics, hormones and growth factors, and the environmental impacts of confined animal feeding operations, which is the most common type of food animal production in the U.S.

Q: Is foregoing processed meat a recommended method for preventing cancer? Is more research needed or does this support previous scientific inquiry?
A: It is absolutely recommended to decrease—if not completely eliminate—processed meat intake to prevent cancer, and other chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and hypertension. The research is very consistent on that point.

In terms of red meat, the recommendations are to limit intake. For example, the World Cancer Research Fund, a group that is actively involved in summarizing scientific literature into public health recommendations, recommends that we eat no more than 500 grams or 18 ounces of red meat per week, which equates to 2.5 ounces or less than one small, single patty hamburger per day. Many nutrition organizations also recommend thinking of meat as a “condiment” or an ingredient that can be added to dishes for flavor, rather than having meat as the central focus of our dinner plates.

 



"Many nutrition organizations also recommend thinking of meat as a 'condiment'"

Kim Robien,  GW Department of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences Associate Professor


 

Q: What next steps do you recommend to those who are concerned about the report and their risk of cancer?
A: There are many things that we can do to decrease our risk of cancers, especially colorectal cancers. Many people describe colorectal cancers as being nearly 100 percent preventable if you follow recommendations. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends that everyone between 50 and 75 years of age should have a colonoscopy every 10 years. Individuals with a family history of colorectal cancers should consult with their physician to develop a personalized screening plan, which likely will include beginning screening tests at an earlier age than is recommended for the general public. Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, being physically active and abstaining from smoking are things that we should all be doing to decrease our risk of cancer.