You’re probably familiar with nutritionists’ warnings about consuming too much red meat. This includes beef, lamb, pork, and goat.
Doing so is said to increase your risk for several long-term health conditions, including cardiovascular issues, but more research is needed on the subject.
But what about claims that red meat causes cancer? Experts are still looking into the issue, but they’ve identified some potential links.
Before diving into the research around the link between red meat and cancer, it’s important to understand the different types of red meat.
Unprocessed red meats are those that haven’t been altered or modified. Examples include:
- pork chops
- lamb shanks
- mutton chops
On its own, unprocessed red meat can be nutritious. It’s often packed with protein, vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients.
Red meat loses some of its traditional value when it’s processed.
Processed meat refers to meat that’s been somehow modified, often for taste, texture, or shelf life. This might be done by salting, curing, or smoking meat.
Examples of processed red meats include:
- hot dogs
- pepperoni and salami
- bacon and ham
- lunch meats
- canned meats
Compared to unprocessed red meat, processed red meat is generally lower in beneficial nutrients and higher in salt and fat.
Experts have classified red meat as a probable cause of cancer when consumed in high amounts. There’s a stronger link between processed meat and cancer risk.
Experts have classified processed meat as a carcinogen. This means it’s now known to cause cancer.
Over the years, many studies have looked at the health effects of consuming both unprocessed and processed red meat.
So far, the results have been mixed, but there’s some evidence that eating a lot of red meat may increase your risk for certain cancers.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is part of the World Health Organization. It’s made up of international experts who work to classify possible carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).
When there’s a lot of evidence to suggest something may cause cancer, IARC members spend several days reviewing scientific studies about the possible carcinogen.
They consider multiple factors from the evidence, including how animals respond to a possible carcinogen, how humans respond to it, and how cancer could develop after exposure.
Part of this process involves categorizing the potential carcinogen based on its potential to cause cancer in humans.
Group 1 agents are those determined to cause cancer in humans. Group 4 agents, on the other hand, include agents that likely don’t cause cancer.
Keep in mind that this classification doesn’t identify the risk associated with a carcinogen. It only indicates the amount of evidence supporting the link between specific carcinogens and cancer.
In 2015, 22 experts from 10 countries met to evaluate existing research about the link between red meat and cancer.
They reviewed more than 800 studies from the past 20 years. Some studies looked at only processed or unprocessed red meat. Others looked at both.
The IARC’s findings indicate that:
- Eating red meat regularly probably increases your risk for colorectal cancer.
- Eating processed meat regularly does increase your risk for colorectal cancer.
If you’re looking to reduce your risk for colorectal and potentially other types of cancer, avoid eating processed meats.
The IARC classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. In other words, there’s enough research to show it causes cancer in humans. To give you some context, here are some other Group 1 carcinogens:
- UV radiation
Again, this classification is based on the evidence supporting the link between cancer and a particular agent.
While there’s strong evidence to suggest that all Group 1 agents cause cancer in humans, they don’t necessarily all pose the same level of risk.
For example, eating a hot dog isn’t necessarily the same as smoking a cigarette when it comes to cancer risk.
The IARC report concluded that eating 50 grams of processed meat each day increases cancer risk by 18 percent. According to the American Cancer Society, this can raise lifetime risk for colon cancer from 5 percent to 6 percent.
For reference, 50 grams of processed meat translates to about one hot dog or a few slices of deli meat.
Experts suggest only eating these meats once in a while. Consider enjoying them on special occasions rather than making them a part of your daily diet.
Unprocessed red meat is part of a balanced diet for many people. It offers good amounts of:
- vitamins, such as B-6 and B-12
- minerals, including iron, zinc, and selenium
Still, the IARC report concluded that regularly eating red meat likely increases the risk for certain cancers.
There’s no need to completely cut red meet out of your diet, though. Just pay attention to how you’re preparing it and how much of it you consume.
IARC experts also noted in their report that the way you cook red meat can have an impact on cancer risk.
Grilling, burning, smoking, or cooking meat at very high temperatures seems to increase risk. Still, the IARC experts explained that there wasn’t enough evidence to make any official recommendations.
The authors of the IARC report noted there’s no need to give up unprocessed red meat entirely. But it’s best to limit your servings to three per week.
What’s in a serving?
A single serving of red meat is around 3 to 4 ounces (85 to 113 grams). This looks like:
- one small hamburger
- one medium-sized pork chop
- one small steak
If red or processed meats make up a lot of your diet, consider making some swaps.
Here are some ideas for reducing your red meat consumption:
- In pasta sauce, replace half the meat you’d typically use with finely chopped carrots, celery, mushrooms, tofu, or a combination.
- When making burgers, use ground turkey or chicken instead of beef. For a meat-free burger, use black beans or tempeh.
- Add beans and lentils to soups and stews for texture and protein.
Looking to quit processed meat? These tips can help:
- Swap out cold cuts in your sandwich for slices of roasted chicken or turkey.
- Choose chicken or vegetable toppings on pizza instead of pepperoni or bacon.
- Try vegan meats. For example, use soy chorizo in burritos or seitan in stir-fries. Add vegetables for color, texture, and added nutrients.
- Swap eggs and yogurt for processed breakfasts meats, such as bacon or sausage.
- Instead of grilling hot dogs, pan-fry fresh or preservative-free bratwurst or sausage links.
Red meat has been under scrutiny for its potential links to several health issues, including cancer. Experts now believe that regularly eating red meat may increase your risk for colorectal cancer.
Experts also agree there’s strong enough evidence to say that eating a lot of processed meat does increase your cancer risk.
But there’s no need to cut red meat out of your diet entirely. Just try to stick with high-quality unprocessed red meat, and limit your consumption to just a few servings each week.