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Yes, meat causes cancer — here's everything you have to know about it

One in every six deaths in the world is due to cancer, making it the second leading cause of death (second only to cardiovascular disease). But what if we could avoid these deaths? As a matter of fact, we can drastically reduce this number by changing our diet: several studies have revealed that the consumption of animal products, especially meat, is directly related to both cancer and cardiovascular disease.

And it's not us saying this. It's no less than the World Health Organization, an agency of the UN. In 2014, 22 experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 epidemiological studies to assess if the risk of several cancers may be associated with high consumption of red meat or processed meat.

The conclusion? Processed meats such as hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage and others, were classified as Group 1, which means, according to them, that "there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer". It's the same group as asbestos, cigarettes, UV radiation and alcohol.

Red meat was classified as Group 2A, which is "probably carcinogenic to humans", which means while there is limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing cancer, there is strong mechanistic evidence, which means the link between people developing cancer and their diet of eating meat is one that cannot be ignored.

Numbers don't lie

The WHO found that eating 50 grams of processed meat every day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s the equivalent of about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog. According to the American Cancer Society, this can raise lifetime risk for colon cancer from 5% to 6%. For red meat, there was evidence of an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.

A big part of the risk might be related in its preparation. When meat, poultry and seafood are cooked at a high temperature, it releases heterocyclic aromatic amines, and when their fat and juices fall directly over a heated surface or open fire, causing flames and smoke, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are formed. When these amines and hydrocarbons are metabolized by enzymes in our bodies, some of the byproducts of this process can cause DNA damage, making both of these substances carcinogenic. In the case of processed meat, there's a "bonus": it's filled with harmful chemical additives, among them nitrites.

Furthermore, researchers suggest that the consumption of meat contributes just as much as sugar to the growing prevalence of global obesity. And obesity is an important risk factor for cancer.

Risks for women

For women, a study conducted by the Sorbonne University and published in the British Medical Journal, found out that an increase of just 10% in the consumption of processed food is related to an increase of 12% in the risk of developing some types of cancer. Among the products listed as potentially carcinogens are chicken nuggets and other processed meats, corroborating the WHO's conclusions.

Further research from the Harvard School of Public Health found a link between a high consumption of red meat and breast cancer in young women. Compared with women who had one serving of red meat a week, those who ate 1.5 servings a day appeared to have a 22% higher risk of breast cancer. And each additional daily serving of red meat seemed to increase the risk of breast cancer by another 13%.

More vegetables, less meat

Let's highlight this information here: 1.5 servings a day. That’s around 100g. Stop for a second to think about how much you eat.

It means that even small amounts of meat could cause cancer. That was also confirmed by a study by UK Biobank. After five years analyzing half a million men and women who signed up to the research project, they found that those who were more or less keeping to the guidelines, eating on average 76g of red or processed meat per day, had a 20% increased risk of bowel cancer compared with those who averaged 21g a day.

A balanced plant-based diet, full of fruits, vegetables and grains, is rich in antioxidants that play an important role in cancer prevention. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale are being studied because of evidence that they might help inactivate carcinogens and inhibit tumor cell migration that causes metastasis.

It's no wonder in virtually all the studies you'll find, the scientists will say the same: eat more vegetables. Eat less meat. We say the same. It's good for your health, for animals and for the environment.

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