Prevention Series 3 of 8 | Red and Processed Meat Contribute to Cancer Risk

by Natalie on July 19, 2011

Welcome back! Hopefully you have been enjoying my prevention series. I know I have had a lot of fun sharing this important information with you. If you are just tuning in today, please consider reading article one and two. All featured recommendations are equally important.

Today’s featured recommendation for cancer prevention is: “Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork, lamb) and avoid processed meats.”

From their research, the AICR has defined a threshold for the amount of red meat we can consume without raising cancer risk. They suggest to eat no more than 18 ounces (cooked weight) of red meat per week.

Keep in mind that red meat includes beef, pork, lamb. We often only associate red meat with beef which may lead us to unknowingly exceed our red meat limits.

The AICR defines processed meats as those that have been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives. Examples of these meats include bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs and sausages.

Red Meat and Cancer Risk Explained

Researchers from the expert report on cancer prevention found convincing evidence that red meat contributes to colon cancer risk. The evidence provided an even stronger link than was previously thought. Therefore, it is very important that we keep our red meat intake low.

There are a few reasons why red meat poses this risk. First, there are substances in red meat, such as heme iron, that contribute to cancer risk. Heme iron has been shown to damage the lining of the colon. Another reason red meat contributes to cancer risk is by diet composition. Research found that people who eat more red meat are less likely to meet their requirements for plant foods. As we now know, plants are incredibly important foods to eat for cancer prevention!

Processed Meat and Cancer Risk

The guidelines for processed meat intake are not as lenient as they are for red meat. The AICR recommends to avoid all processed meat completely for cancer prevention. Their research found that any amount of processed meat consumed increases cancer risk.

The way by which processed meats increase cancer risk is through the process of preserving. Preserving meats leads to the formation of carcinogens. We then consume these carcinogens when we eat the processed meats.

Putting Recommendations Into Practice

  • Consume turkey, chicken and fish more often than beef, pork, and lamb. But remember to keep portions of meat small. The emphasis of our meals should be on plants. We learned in my last article that at least ⅔ of our plates should be filled with cancer protective plants (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes).
  • Instead of using preserved deli meats for sandwiches, try roasting fresh chicken or turkey breasts in the oven. Save the leftovers for your sandwiches.
  • Use chicken, fish, beans or roasted vegetables for tacos instead of ground beef.
  • Use lean ground turkey as a substitute for ground beef in burgers.
  • Make a meatless entree at least once a week.

A Note About Cooked Meat

Unfortunately, the way we cook meat can also contribute to cancer risk. Carcinogens form when meat is cooked at very high temperatures. Don’t consume parts of meat that are charred or burnt.


Red and processed meat intake is linked to colon cancer. The evidence is very strong. Red meat includes beef, pork and lamb. Keep your intake less than 18 ounces per week to reduce your risk. Unfortunately there is really no “safe” amount of processed meat to include in our diets and therefore, the AICR recommends we avoid this food.

I personally choose to consume way less than 18 ounces of red meat per week. I don’t enjoy the taste of red meat very much and find it more difficult to digest. I also find when I eat a large serving of meat, I have way less room for the good stuff – plants!

Join me Thursday for the continuation of the prevention series, I will be discussing alcohol and cancer risk. I would love to have you!

Tell me what you think. Leave a comment in the comments section below.



Photo by: wwarby

Heather July 19, 2011 at 2:14 pm

This may be a silly question but can you provide a few examples of processed meat (it sounds gross)?

Natalie July 20, 2011 at 10:52 am

Not a silly question at all! The term “processed” is a difficult one because there is no universal definition of it. The AICR defines processed meat as meats that have been preserved by smoking, curing, salting, and/or with the addition of chemical preservatives. Some examples include: deli meats, bacon, sausages, bratwursts, and hot dogs.

Dana @ Budget Dietitian July 21, 2011 at 8:05 am

Great post Natalie! I love how you define how much is too much (more than 18oz/week). Very helpful post (and series!)

Natalie July 21, 2011 at 10:11 am

Thanks Dana! I am glad you found it helpful.

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