Is it still safe to bring home the bacon? What to know about the WHO report

A WHO panel concluded that eating processed meats, including bacon and hot dogs, increases the risk of getting cancer, adding that fresh cuts of red meat probably cause cancer, too. Our experts talk about what it means.
An international panel of health experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) caused a stir this week by reporting that eating processed meats, including bacon and hot dogs, increases the risk of getting cancer. While that assessment is not entirely new, the report, published in the journal Lancet Oncology, went a step further, adding that fresh cuts of red meat probably cause cancer, too.  

Before you swear off the bacon and filet mignon, it’s important to put the report into context. The WHO announcement also said it is safe to eat up to 18 ounces of red meat a week. So what is the meat lover to do? Think moderation, says Kristen Trukova, Clinical Oncology Dietitian at our hospital near Chicago. “I think this study sounds overwhelming to people. It’s important to keep in mind that the WHO is looking at regular consumption—two ounces of processed meat a day, which equals roughly two to three slices of bacon every day, as well as 4 ounces of red meat daily, or about one small pork chop,” Trukova says. “What we should be focused on instead is moderation in red meat intake. Bacon should be a treat consumed once in a while, rather than a regular part of your day.”

The new assessment from the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer officially classified processed meats as "carcinogenic to humans," putting them in the same category as tobacco smoke, asbestos and formaldehyde. It’s important to clarify while the classification is the same, the risk is not.

If you are considering banning all meat from your diet, you may want to think again. “Personally, I was vegetarian for 26 years, but liberalized my diet about eight years ago for a number of reasons,” says Carolyn Lammersfeld, Vice President of Integrative Care Services at our hospital near Chicago. “While I still choose primarily fish, beans and sometimes poultry for protein, I do sometimes eat a small portion of a good, lean cut of beef or lamb. I like the taste of grass-fed meats. I do not even eat 18 ounces of red meat a month, and, of course, I love lots of vegetables with my meat when I have it. I rarely eat processed meats.”

While many on social and in the mainstream media expressed shock at the WHO’s wording, its findings should come as little surprise. The American Cancer Society and the American Institute for Cancer Research have made similar recommendations for many years. In addition last year, researchers at Harvard reported a link between red meat consumption and an increased risk of breast cancer. A separate study in 2013  found a link between eating processed meats and a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.

“These foods have a high concentration of saturated fat, are high in calories and indirectly may impact a person’s overall health, including the development of cancer,” says Dr. Pankaj Vashi, Chair for the Department of Medicine and Medical Director of Gastroenterology and Nutrition & Metabolic Support at our hospital near Chicago. “The bottom line is that eating more of plant-based diet, adequate proteins, exercise and limiting overall caloric intake can impact the incidence of cancer more than simply staying away from processed foods.”