By now you've probably heard the news about processed meats causing cancer. But before you try to figure out how many slices of bacon you've eaten in your lifetime, there's something you need to know: Bacon is not as bad for you as cigarettes. Not even close.
"We're hearing from both ends of the spectrum: 'meat is poison' and 'this report is blown out of proportion,'" says Sonia Kupfer, MD, gastroenterologist and co-director of the Comprehensive Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic at the University of Chicago Medicine. "It's not the whole story."
Here is the whole story: On October 24, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in The Lancet that explained how a group of international scientists went through more than 800 studies about meat and cancer and ultimately determined that there is an association between eating processed meat and colorectal cancer. The scientists also found a weaker association between eating red meat and colon cancer, as well as pancreatic and prostate cancers. But this isn't new information. The link between consuming meat and cancer has been made before.
What is new is that WHO used this info to classify processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, putting it among many notorious cancer-causers, such as air pollution, asbestos, arsenic, and, you guessed it, cigarettes. Red meat was classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, meaning it is "probably carcinogenic to humans" and joins the ranks of frying food at high temperatures, being a hairdresser or barber, and burning wood in your fireplace.
The important distinction that many are failing to make is that one cancer-causing element is not like the other. To its credit, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer research division of the WHO, said that when it released the report. Just because two things belong to the same category doesn't mean they are equally dangerous.
Consider a different example: Marijuana and heroin are both classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration as Schedule I drugs, but would you ever consider marijuana to be as dangerous as heroin? Probably not. The same goes for processed meats and cigarettes.
The bottom line? "It comes down to doing nothing in excess," says Dr. Kupfer. "Red meat comes into the equation when determining cancer risk, but it can be consumed in moderation."