Data shows meat linked to cancer

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A new classification for certain meats – cancer causing. As medical reporter Dina Bair reports they are now in the same classification as tobacco.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer – an arm of the World Health Organization -- evaluated the carcinogenic effects of eating red meat and processed meats, and the results are not good for meat lovers.

Red meat probably causes cancer: that includes beef, veal, pork, lamb and goat. Processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, sausage, corned beef and beef jerky cause cancer according to a WHO review of multiple scientific studies. Twenty-two experts examined data from more than 20 years.

Dr Tricia Moo-Young, surgical oncologist, NorthShore University HealthSystem: “It’s probably the richest amount of data we’ve seen on this subject matter, so I think it does give us all reason, even as physicians, to take pause and heed what they are trying to bring up.”

The compilation of evidence puts processed meats in the same category with cigarettes, tanning beds and even sunlight exposure based on cancer threat. In this case, meat is connected to colon cancer risk. The greatest danger comes from the grilling or curing process.

Dr Moo-Young: “The gastrointestinal system, so that’s the first thing hit by anything we ingest, so if there is any cancer causing effects from what we are ingesting, that’s what is going to be impacted first.”

While the American Cancer Society admits a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with limited meat consumption tends to yield fewer colon cancers, experts say it is not crystal clear what factors of the diet are important. And the reality is, virtually no studies actually enrolled people to groups who ate meat and those who did not. So all of the results are based on conclusions drawn from observation, animals and patient’s reported diet.

Dr Moo-Young: “I think we have to use caution to any study that’s going to use a very wide source of data from a variety of different areas. They used both animal as well as human studies. And with that it’s very difficult to standardize your comparison groups.”

And critics say that’s why these types of studies give false positives. And in a study where researchers were able to control, results did not show improvement for people who reduced red meat consumption. In the polyp prevention trial, at-risk patients stopped eating meat but did not lower cancer risk.

Dr Moo-Young: “I don’t think anyone needs to cause alarm to stop, exclude red meats from our diets or processed foods in general because we have to balance what our health choices are with what our socioeconomic choices are. No one should walk away from this making drastic changes in their lifestyle but a measured choice and then obviously talking with their physicians as frequently as possible.”

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