Is it time to give up meat?

Jane Murphy / 06 November 2015

What difference will cutting down on bacon sandwiches and sausage rolls really make to our health?



Processed meat is now classified as a 'definite' cause of cancer, following a headline-grabbing World Health Organization report.

Those recent headlines were enough to make even the most hardened carnivores drop their bacon sandwiches in shock.

Processed meat is now officially classed alongside smoking, alcohol and UV radiation as 'carcinogenic to humans', according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization.

A working group of 22 experts from across the globe concluded that each 50g portion of processed meat eaten daily increases risk of bowel cancer by 18 per cent.

Learn more about bowel cancer

The term 'processed meat' refers to any meat that has been transformed through processes such as salting, curing, fermentation or smoking to enhance its flavour or preserve it for longer. It includes bacon, ham, sausages, corned beef or salami – but not fresh mince or burgers.

Red meat, meanwhile, has been classified as a probable cause of cancer, based on evidence that suggests a strong link between its consumption and risk of bowel cancer. Associations have also been seen for pancreatic and prostate cancer.

'Red meat' includes all types of mammalian muscle meat, such as beef, lamb and pork. It's distinct from white meat, such as chicken and turkey, which doesn't appear to increase cancer risk.

Understanding the risk

But what do these scary-sounding statistics and classifications actually mean in reality?

After all, if you've been tucking into hot dogs and bacon for decades with no apparent ill effects, you could perhaps be forgiven for taking this news with a pinch of salt (or possibly a dollop of ketchup).

Let's take a look at that ranking first of all. The fact that processed meat has been classified alongside tobacco as a definite cause of cancer doesn't mean that regularly eating bacon is as dangerous as smoking cigarettes.

These statistics from Cancer Research UK may offer some perspective: if nobody in the UK smoked, there would be 64,500 fewer cancer cases each year; if nobody ate processed or red meat, there would be 8,800 fewer cases.

Get the balance right

In fact, nobody is suggesting you should cut out meat completely, based on this report – but the key is to eat it as part of a balanced diet.

'This decision doesn't mean you need to stop eating any red and processed meat,' says Professor Tim Key, Cancer Research UK's epidemiologist at the University of Oxford.

'But if you eat lots of it, you may want to think about cutting down. You could try having fish for your dinner rather than sausages, or choosing to have a bean salad for lunch over a BLT. Eating a bacon bap every once in a while isn't going to do much harm. Having a healthy diet is all about moderation.'

How much is too much?

Current advice, according to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, is that adults who eat more than 90g of red and/or processed meat each day should aim to cut down to the national average of 70g or less.

One rasher of bacon or a slice of ham is around 25g, while a sausage is approximately 30g (cooked weight).

It may not sound much – but these portions can easily add up over the course of a day.

Have bacon for breakfast, a ham sandwich for lunch and a pork chop for dinner, for instance, and you'll be well over recommended limits.

Substituting some of the meat in your diet for alternatives such as oily fish or extra vegetables will also help ensure you get all the vital nutrients you need for optimum health.

Read why you need to eat a rainbow of colourful fruit and veg for your health

It's also a good idea to be a little more choosy about the meat you eat. The British Dietetic Association advises opting for lean cuts and avoiding cooking at very high temperatures, such as grilling and barbecueing.

The reason? There's strong evidence to suggest these methods can create chemicals that may increase cancer risk.

Finally, if you do feel inspired to introduce a few more meat-free days to your diet, it's important to ensure you're still getting enough of the nutrients found in meat – particularly protein, iron, calcium and zinc.

Speak to your GP – or get more information from the Vegetarian Society. Ultimately, balance is key.

 

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