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Caring Currents

Beware Red Meat, the New Cancer Risk

By , Caring.com senior editor
Last updated: July 08, 2009
summer barbecue
Image by Paul Keleher used under the creative commons attribution license.

When the U.S. government issued an official report last week linking pancreatic cancer risk to eating red meat, a topic that's been simmering for quite a while suddenly got shoved into the spotlight.

Of course, this is news many Americans and Europeans clearly don't want to hear. We Americans especially love our steak, barbecue, and salami sandwiches, and perhaps in recognition of this cultural tendency, government experts have been -- at least up to now -- reluctant to comment assertively on the issue.

But we're going to face the issue squarely here. How big is the risk, and how much do we need to change our eating habits to avoid it?

The risk is big enough that people need to know, experts say. Hence a slew of government reports. According to the Britain-based World Cancer Research Fund, one out of ten of all digestive cancers could be prevented if people cut their meat consumption to one or two servings a week.

Scientists even believe they've identified the mechanism by which red meat triggers tumor growth. Researchers at U.C. San Diego Medical School identified a sugar molecule called neu5Gc that's introduced into the body from digesting red meat. Neu5Gc triggers the immune system to produce antibodies that cause high levels of inflammation. The researchers tested tumor tissue and found it contains high levels of neu5Gc, which can only be introduced into the body from red meat.

Yet despite a slew of studies, few people seem to know that eating red meat presents a cancer risk. A survey by the WCRF found that fewer than a third of those polled were aware there was risk from eating red and processed meat.

So what should you do? As much as possible, substitute fish and chicken for red meat in your family's diet. A British study followed vegetarians and found they had half the risk of stomach and colon cancers as meat eaters. And studies have found that those who eat fish several times a week have the lowest cancer risk of all.

Processed meats, such as hot dogs and prepared lunch meats, are the biggest culprits of all, so avoid them as much as possible. Results from a number of studies on this topic are quite conclusive; one found that those who ate hot dogs and sausage frequently upped their risk of pancreatic cancer by almost 70 percent. The WCRF recommends eating no processed meats at all if you can manage it. One strategy that's worked for me: When I go the deli, I ask for freshly sliced turkey and chicken breast and shut my eyes tightly as I pass the salami and pastrami. And when you go the ball park? Bring along a tasty homemade picnic, so you won't be tempted.