Why you should think twice about eating red meat

Recent guidelines published in Annals of Internal Medicine inform adults that there is no reason not to continue consuming red and processed meats at current levels of intake. These recommendations are based on the facts that the observed negative effects of red and processed meat are very small, the quality of evidence is low to very low, and that meat eaters enjoy meat and it would be hard to change their eating habits.

This recommendation contradicts current recommendations from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) for reducing cancer risk. Our team at the Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship (CIOS) has read and reviewed related articles and would like to share the following information:

  • Researchers noted that cutting three servings of red meat per week resulted in seven fewer cancer-related deaths per 1,000 people. While that may seem a small number, it is our job at CIOS to educate patients on ways to decrease their risk or recurrence of cancer.
  • For colorectal cancer, the new report found a 7% reduction correlated to eating three servings per week or less of processed meats. This is similar to the estimate noted by the IARC of the World Health Organization, as processed meat does have a level of carcinogenicity and is capable of causing cancer under some circumstances.
  • While taste preference is an important consideration when providing personalized dietary instruction, it should not be a major factor in developing dietary guidelines.
  • Current recommendations on healthy and balanced eating patterns for the prevention of chronic diseases remain unchanged. The AICR recommends no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week. Choosing a variety of proteins is beneficial to health, as is choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables.

Red and processed meat consumption risks must look at the population as a whole. We cannot quantify an individual personal risk of eating red or processed meat. It is analogous to smoking, in that one person may smoke a pack a day and live to age 90 with no cancer or lung disease, but we know that in the population as a whole, smoking increases the risk of cancer. The publication of Annals of Internal Medicine did conclude that “adherence to dietary patterns lower in red or processed meat intake may result in decreased risk for all-cause mortality, cardio-metabolic disease and mortality, and cancer morbidity and mortality.”

At CIOS, we support efforts to increase consumption of a plant-based diet. This diet does more than reduce the risk of cancer. It also improves cognitive health, prevents and reverses cardiovascular disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and lowers risk of premature mortality. We understand that eating adds to our quality of life, but the standard American diet has been proven to increase one’s probability of developing a chronic (and expensive) illnesses. There is more and more truth in the old adage of “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

For more information, contact Finley Wiles at Finley.Wiles@prismahealth.org.

Finley Wiles is a clinical nutrition specialist at Prisma Health’s Center for Integrative Oncology and Survivorship. Dr. Jeff Giguere, medical director of CIOS, and Leann Perkins, a nurse practitioner at CIOS, also contributed to this post.

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