Is Eating Red Meat a Big Cancer Risk?

By: Karen Ansel, M.S., R.D.  |  March/April 2016
Is red meat really risky when it comes to your risk of cancer? You've been warned in the past to eat less meat, but the worries may be overplayed. After all, it's all relative.
The average American eats about 99 pounds of red and processed meat each year. Given how much beef, pork, deli meat (yes, poultry too), hot dogs, sausage and bacon we eat, it's concerning that the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that eating these meats may promote cancer. Eating 3 ½ ounces of red meat (or a steak the size of a deck of cards) daily raises colo­rectal cancer risk by 17 percent. Eating about 2 ounces of processed meat (roughly two slices of deli meat) daily raises this risk by 18 percent. It sounds dangerous, especially in light of headlines comparing meat to ­tobacco, but let's look beyond the hype.
For starters, the research looks at cancer risk, but what exactly is risk? Risk is the chance that something will happen. "Driving recklessly doesn't mean you're definitely going to get into an accident, but it increases the risk or probability that it will happen," says Elisa Bandera, M.D., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. "If you're driving carefully you could still get into an accident, but it's less likely."
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The same is true for meat and cancer. Eating more red and processed meat doesn't guarantee you'll get cancer, since factors like genetics, exercise and the big picture of your overall diet come into play. "If more of your daily calories come from red and processed meat, it's likely that fewer of them come from protective fruits, vegetables and whole grains," says David Katz, M.D., director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center.
In this instance, reviewing 800 studies led the IARC to classify processed meats as a "Group 1 carcinogen," the same status given to cigarettes. So is eating processed meat as harmful as smoking? "No!" says Peter Callas, Ph.D., research associate professor of medical biostatistics at the University of Vermont. "All the IARC said was that they classify both processed meats and smoking as carcinogens. They didn't say anything about the relative harms of each."
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Being labeled a carcinogen means that it can cause cancer, but it doesn't say that it will. A risk increase less than 50 percent is considered weak, 51 to 200 percent is moderate and over 200 percent is strong. Smoking ups lung cancer risk by 2,500 percent, so the 17 or 18 percent increase in risk from red and processed meat doesn't come close. And the lifetime risk of getting colorectal cancer is about 5 percent. Increasing this risk doesn't add 18 percent to 5 percent (so not 23 percent), but rather adds 18 percent of 5 percent (about 1 percent), upping the risk to 6 percent.
"The takeaway: reduce your red and processed meat consumption," says Bandera. "You can still eat it, just fill most of your plate with vegetables and grains."
What's the risk? Here's a look comparing red meat and other cancer risk factors.

Red Meat: Eat a 3 1/2-ounce steak or burger daily and increase your risk of colon cancer by 17%

52,252 Americans die annually from colorectal cancer.

Salt: Eating more than 1 1/4 teaspoons of salt daily increases your risk of stomach cancer by 51%

11,261 Americans die annually from stomach cancer.

Alcohol: Drinking 2 glasses of alcohol daily increases your risk of breast cancer by 150%

41,325 Americans die annually from breast cancer.

Obesity: Being overweight or obese increases your risk of esophageal cancer by 200%

14,690 Americans die annually from esophageal cancer.

Cigarettes: Smoking cigarettes increases your risk of lung cancer by 2,500%

156,252 Americans die annually from lung cancer.