HAVE you ever heard the claim that eating processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer. Could it be true?
It’s every meat-loving Zimbabwean’s worst nightmare — the idea that eating processed meat and red meat could up colon cancer risk.
Meat lovers out there beware, it’s possible that processed meats and red meat can cause colon cancer.
The cancer arm of the World Health Organisation has some serious concerns about some of our favourite foods.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies processed meat as a carcinogen, something that causes cancer.
And it classifies red meat as a probable carcinogen, something that probably causes cancer.
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This link between certain types of meat and some forms of cancer, particularly colon cancer, isn’t new.
Scientific evidence has been accumulating for decades that colon cancer is more common among people who eat red and processed meat than those who eat vegan diets or white meat more often.
Processed meat includes hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats. It refers to meat that has been treated in some way to preserve or flavour it.
Processing includes salting, curing, fermenting, and smoking. Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb and goat.
Of course red meat has many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients the body needs.
It can be a source of protein, B vitamins, iron, zinc, but the caveat lies in what type of red meat you are eating, how much of the red meat you are consuming and how often are you eating it, but generally speaking, choosing white meat or vegetarian options are your best bets for having an overall healthier colon.
Twenty-two experts from 10 countries reviewed more than 800 studies to reach their conclusions.
They found that eating 50 grammes of processed meat everyday increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
That’s the equivalent of about four strips of bacon or one hot dog. For red meat, there was evidence of increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer.
Overall, the lifetime risk of someone developing colon cancer is 5%.
To put the numbers into perspective, the increased risk from eating the amount of processed meat mentioned in the study would raise average lifetime risk to almost 6%.
Data has also shown that time and time again, red meat is linked with high cholesterol and, in turn, increases risk of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes.
Consumption of more meat is also associated with increased rates of obesity which is a serious health hazard.
Colon cancer is not 100% preventable. However, managing certain controllable risk factors such as your diet particularly can lower one’s chances of developing it.
Health experts have long recommended a diet that limits processed and red meat, and that is high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
These contain high amounts of fibre and have been linked to decreased risk of colon cancer.
Researchers believe that maybe because fibre tends to add bulk to your digestive system, it shortens the amount of time that wastes travel through the colon.
Since this waste often contains carcinogens, a high amount of fibre decreases the opportunity for carcinogens to affect intestinal cells.
As a health professional, I would recommend white meats, especially fish, poultry, rabbits or beans instead of red and processed meat.
Generally, cancer rates would decline by up to 20% if everyone consumed five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
They contain cancer fighting substances such as antioxidants, dietary fibre, carotenoids and flavenoids.
You are also advised to limit excessive intake of sugar and salt to keep your colon healthy.
As we commemorate colon cancer awareness month this March, my additional advice is avoid tobacco.
Getting to and maintaining a healthy weight, getting regular physical activity, and limiting alcohol can also help people lower their risk of getting not only colon cancer, but many types of cancers.
- Michelle C Madzudzo is a Talk Cancer Zim founder and president and radiation therapist by profession. She writes here in her personal capacity.