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Worried About Processed Meat-Cancer Link? Consider Greener, Safer Choices

The World Health Organization sent shock waves across the globe on Monday with its gloomy new report that says bacon, hot dogs, sausages and other processed meat contribute to a higher risk of colorectal cancer.

Dietitians generally praise the findings, primarily for putting the spotlight on potentially unhealthy foods and the need for a balanced-diet approach. The WHO’s report [1] found that a person’s relative risk of developing cancer from eating processed meats, or the equivalent of a cold-cut sandwich or one hot dog a day, rises by about 18 percent.

Overall, the lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer in the U.S. is about 1 in 20, or 5 percent, according to the American Cancer Society. So the WHO’s report slightly raises that absolute risk by one point to 6 percent (or 18 percent of the 5 percent lifetime risk).

This cancer risk increase is small overall, but a body of evidence has been building for years linking the heaviest meat eaters to bowel cancers.

The WHO study has triggered new worries among bacon lovers, but the report is consistent with what the American Cancer Society, the World Cancer Research Fund, the American Institute for Cancer Research and other organizations have been recommending for over a decade. Most dietitians and cancer organizations favor fish, poultry or beans over processed and red meat as protein sources.

Plant-Based Diets, Better Meat Choices

The American Cancer Society has highlighted the benefits of a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant-based foods and a limited consumption of red meat, says Lucette Talamas, registered dietitian with Community Health at Baptist Health South Florida. “You don’t have to be a vegetarian to experience the health benefits of a plant-based diet. Just make sure to include plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains every day.”

Coincidentally, as the WHO released its report on potential dangers of processed meats, Baptist Health South Florida this week is adhering to “Food Day [2],” part of Healthcare Without Harm [3], a global coalition of healthcare systems, medical professionals and other groups promoting “environmentally responsible healthcare.” Every October, Food Day takes place across the nation at participating hospitals to showcase the preparation and serving of meat raised without routine antibiotics.

“The Food Day campaign helps individuals move toward a diet that includes more plant-based foods and better meat choices and addresses health and environmental issues,” says Natalie Castro, Baptist Health South Florida’s chief wellness dietitian. “Our Food Day menus included meat, poultry and fish raised without routine antibiotics. We also incorporated micro greens into the menus that were grown in our own organic garden, ‘Grow 2 Heal’ down in Homestead.”

Baptist Health’s food policy and standards for sourcing food products and serving meals, snacks and beverages are as follows: