Is Bacon So Bad?

A report on Monday by the World Health Organization (WHO)  linking processed meat with cancer has been the subject of big time media headlines. Fox News, among others, jumped on the bandwagon with an alarmist (and highly inaccurate) story lead, proclaiming, “eating processed meat like hot dogs and bacon could be as dangerous as smoking cigarettes when it comes to cancer.”  Meanwhile Twitter has been abuzz with “I told you sos” from vegetarians, environmentalists, and animal rights activists, while the meat industry is working overtime to undo the damage.

With all the swirl, it can be hard to get to the truth.

Here’s what we know:

The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer looked at over 800 studies and found processed meats (ie, ham, bacon, sausage) to be “carcinogenic to humans” and red meats (ie, beef, pork, lamb, goat), to be  “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Are either as highly correlated as cigarettes? Not even close. Regular consumption of processed meats is said to increase risk for colorectal cancer from 5 to 6 percent. Hardly the impact of chain smoking Marlboros by the packful.

This report might make headlines, but the link between eating meat and cancer is hardly groundbreaking news.  Consider the following:

  • The American Cancer Society and American Institute for Cancer Research have recommended eating less red meat and processed meat for years.
  • Nitrates, used to process ham, bacon, and other cured meats, have long been a known carcinogen
  • It’s a well established fact that cooking meat at high temperatures, such as grilling, is associated with an increased cancer risk
  • A diet high in saturated fat, such as in most processed meat and many cuts of red meat, has been linked with an increased risk for disease, including cancer for many years.
  • Most nutrition professionals have long agreed that a plant-based diet with less meat is the healthiest, as evidenced by this statement by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, “Thus, the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains.”

What remains unknown is if the risks differ for organic or grass fed meat over conventionally raised animals AND how much meat or processed meat is considered safe. It’s now up to government agencies to take a look at the WHO report and make some recommendations.

In the meantime, does this news make a dent in my diet?

Arugula Quinoa Avocado & Bacon Salad

Probably not. My advice now doesn’t differ from what I would have told you two days ago, before the study was released:

  • Pile your plate with fruits and vegetables.
  • Emphasize plant-based protein sources, such as beans, nuts, and legumes.
  • Include a couple servings of fish each week. 
  • Go meatless more often than not. When you do eat meat, limit the portion to four to six ounces.
  • Consider the fact that cutting back on meat may leave room in your budget for better quality meat, such as grass fed and organic.
  • Know that restaurant portions for meat tend to be large, so split that hamburger or steak with a table mate and heavy up on salads and vegetables instead.
  • If you like processed meats, such as bacon or prosciutto, consider them more of a condiment than the main event, or eat them as a sometimes treat rather than an everyday staple. 

Keep in mind, that meat also happens to be a rich source of nutrients, and for meat lovers everywhere, can be an enormous source of pleasure. As for me, I’ll still enjoy an occasional hot dog at the ballpark and crumble bacon over a favorite salad, because, as one Twitterer Tweeted today, “Bacon may kill you, but not eating bacon means you never lived.”

What say you?

 

Comments

10.27.2015 at 5:56 PM #

Wanda

I totally agree! I also think all these studies may also be showing correlation and not causation. People who eat a lot of processed meats and red meat probably don’t eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Instead of demonizing foods, I wish more was written about what foods we should eat then what we shouldn’t. I also will enjoy the occasional BBQ ribs or prosciutto, and use my meat budget to buy organic and grass fed meats. And I will continue to try to eat more vegetarian/vegan meals!

10.27.2015 at 5:56 PM #

katiemorford

Good points, Wandy. And I’m totally with you…it should be about the abundance of amazing, delicious foods that we CAN eat rather than focusing on what we can’t eat.

10.27.2015 at 7:47 PM #

Jessica @ Nutritioulicious

fabulous post Katie. Great summary of what the report actually means and what a balanced, healthy diet should look like. Needless to say, I agree with you. Love my lean beef on occasion, but it’s not a daily indulgence!

10.27.2015 at 7:47 PM #

katiemorford

Thanks Jessica. Love having the dietitians chime into this conversation.

10.28.2015 at 12:24 AM #

Kristin Dickerson

Thanks, Katie, for standing up for the okay-ness of the occasional hot dog and bacon! Tonight we ate out and split a grass-fed burger which was complemented by an amazing organic salad. Oh, and there was a little bacon and avocado on the burger, yum!
Years ago, maybe decades, I read that consuming citrus juice (e.g. orange juice) along with your processed meats (e.g. bacon) helps to neutralize the nitrates and nitrites. Have you heard anything to that effect? I’ve been telling people this for a while now. Then there’s always nitrate-free bacon which you can find at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
Thanks for your posting!

10.28.2015 at 12:24 AM #

katiemorford

Hi Kristin, Funny you say that about vitamin C. I wrote a post a while ago about nitrates and talked of a nutrition professor who gave chewable vitamins to her kids when they ate hot dogs. Vitamin C inhibits the conversion of nitrates to nitrosomines, so it makes good sense to include vitamin C rich foods when you eat foods with nitrates. Thanks doc 🙂

10.28.2015 at 9:12 PM #

Melanie

Thank you for writing this! It’s so hard when the media makes dramatic statements that get everyone confused. I love that you point out that the link between eating a lot of meat and cancer is not groundbreaking news. Your recommendations are spot-on! The twitterer does make a compelling argument about bacon as well. 😉

10.28.2015 at 9:12 PM #

katiemorford

Thanks Melanie. That tweet made me giggle, so I had to share.

10.29.2015 at 8:02 AM #

Heather

Definitely important not to sensationalize and look at the bigger picture as you’ve done here. Thanks for sharing your expert opinions, Katie!

10.29.2015 at 8:45 AM #

Danielle Omar -- Food Confidence RD

Great post, Katie! I found the media coverage of this story to be so inaccurate. This is really nothing new. I think the most important thing here is you sending me the recipe for that greens and avocado salad! 🙂 Looks amazing!

10.29.2015 at 8:45 AM #

katiemorford

Nice to hear from you, lady!

10.29.2015 at 4:00 PM #

Heather Mason @NuttyNutrition

haha, great post Katie! I love your moderate take. I too am going to continue occasionally enjoying some crispy bacon.

11.04.2015 at 9:52 PM #

Anne|Craving Something Healthy

Great analysis and advice! I couldn’t have said it better myself 🙂

11.04.2015 at 9:52 PM #

katiemorford

Thank you Anne…means a lot coming from a pro.

11.09.2015 at 10:56 AM #

Laurie

I, like many, LOVE bacon! BLTs are my favorite sandwich so I almost went into mourning when I heard the bad news.Thank you for your voice of reason. I will now go a little lighter on the B and heavier on the L and T. Give it up? Never!

11.09.2015 at 10:56 AM #

katiemorford

Sounds like a very sensible plan Laurie. It’s amazing to me how quickly the hoopla came…and then went.

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