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Sharp Health News

Bye-bye, bacon?

Oct. 30, 2015

Cancer risks of meat

New findings from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the health hazards of cooked and processed meats may leave you wondering whether you have to kiss bacon good-bye forever. The review of more than 800 different studies on the cancer risks associated with meat demonstrated a significant link between eating meat and an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Oncology dietitian Laury Ellingson, RD, CSO, at the David and Donna Long Center for Cancer Treatment at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, provides some context on the findings published in the British medical journal Lancet to help you understand the recent headlines.

"Processed meats are a Group 1 carcinogen, and eating them doubles the risk of cancer as compared with a vegetarian style of eating," warns Ellingson, noting that cigarette smoking is also a Group 1 carcinogen that increases the risk of a number of cancers by 20 times.

Processed meats include bacon, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat, ham and salami, among others. Group 1 carcinogens include substances that have been definitively linked to an increased cancer risk by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Red meats such as beef, pork and lamb are designated a Group 2 carcinogen, which indicates a strong but not definitive risk of cancer in humans.

However, there's no need to quit all meat cold turkey because of these new findings. The WHO recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week, or the equivalent of three pieces of meat the size of the palm of your hand. However, they do recommend that you avoid processed meats.

"The types and amounts of meat we choose to eat are most important," says Ellingson. "Chicken is better than processed meats, and there are non-meat alternatives such as legumes that can be an additional source of protein."

Ellingson encourages people to eat fish, which is high in omegas 3s; lean poultry; and seed, nut or nut butters to meet their protein needs. Pregnant and breastfeeding women, and children under age 5, should limit their consumption of certain kinds of fish because of the risks associated with mercury. It is good for pregnant women to eat lower mercury fish such as salmon, trout, sardines and regular canned tuna rather than albacore.

In addition to limiting your intake of red meat, studies suggest that you can lower your risk of colorectal cancer by taking these steps:

  • Eating a well-balanced diet that includes fruits, vegetables and whole grains (at least 25 grams of fiber each day)
  • Adding probiotics and antioxidants from food, rather than supplements, to your daily diet
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation ( women should have no more than one alcoholic drink per day)
  • Quitting smoking
  • Exercising at least 30 minutes per day
  • Keeping a healthy weight, at a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or lower - but not becoming underweight

Screenings are a vital tool in the early detection of colorectal cancer, but more than half of American adults at risk of developing colorectal cancer are not receiving recommended screenings. Talk to your doctor about your personal risks. The American Cancer Society recommends that all adults over age 50 schedule a screening for colorectal cancer every five to 10 years for sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy, or every year for a fecal blood or DNA test. Those with a personal or family history of polyps or colorectal cancer should consider earlier and/or more frequent screening.

So, what should you do if you are worried about your risk of colorectal cancer? Ellingson has three simple suggestions. "Americans can reduce their risk of colorectal cancer by one half and cancer in general if they follow a healthy balanced diet, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight," she says.

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