Will bacon REALLY give you cancer?!

The More You Know | Elyse Johnson | November 19, 2015

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If you’ve been paying attention on social media this past month, you might have spotted some stories about newly released info from the World Health Organization. (WHO)

In the press release from WHO, they state that after viewing over 800 studies from all over the world, they believe that red meat is “probably carcinogenic” to humans and processed meat (like hot dogs, sausage, etc.) is carcinogenic.

That’s pretty scary. I mean, we already knew that consuming a lot of meat is probably not the best for you, but cancer causing? That’s an entirely different level of concern. If you eat red and/or processed meat at least somewhat regularly, you might have some questions about what this really means for you. And frankly, you probably should be concerned, since cancer causing agents are not something that WHO takes lightly.

So, I asked Dr. Shahla Ray–an expert on nutrition and diet-related diseases here at IU’s School of Public Health–some questions about what that WHO data really means.

I was curious to know how this meat was really causing cancer. Dr. Ray told me, “When you’re getting your protein just from meat, you’re getting less legumes, less of the protein sources like lentils and legumes that have fiber in them.” When you’re getting less fiber, you’re increasing chances for cancer, especially colorectal cancer (which was listed in the WHO data.)

Surprisingly, the way you cook your meat can also affect its cancer-causing abilities.

“When you burn fat, for example, that is on the steak, that has unpaired electrons, and that goes and gets absorbed into the colon cells,” says Ray. “Those are like front line soldiers. They get hit first…so they get hit badly, and they are affected the most.” Burning your meat through grilling can make a difference, so Dr. Ray suggests slow cooking or stewing your meat to avoid creating these chemicals and free radicals that are harmful and can cause cancer.

Dr. Ray says that despite this data, it does not really change much about current dietary guidelines.

“We should always consider moderation,” says Ray. “But if you’re in a rush and get a Subway to go , I don’t have a problem with that…but too much consumption, then we’re talking about [risks.]” If anything, she says, we should emphasize further the importance of moderation, especially when it comes to lunch meat and processed meat.

So, is your delicious bacon really going to give you cancer? “Not necessarily, if you practice moderation,” she says. “Twice a month versus every day bacon for breakfast, adding on sandwiches, bacon BLT sandwiches…I worry about fat content, preservatives, and that’s why I practice moderation as well.”

Ray believes that many factors most likely contributed to the cancer findings.

“1 in 5 cancer cases are from obesity; that’s a new thing from the American Cancer Society.  So that, along with eating the fat that comes in a steak–at least cut that fat off. Obesity and cancer directly…play into that [cancer risk.]…There are lots of other factors.”

So, you can breathe easy, meat lovers. In essence, this study does not mean your meat consumption is a certain death. But as Dr. Ray pointed out, moderation is KEY, so think twice before munching on red or processed meat, especially if you have other cancer risk factors going for you!