The real connection between meat and colon cancer
For the past three decades researchers have been trying answer one question about diet and cancer – does meat cause colorectal cancer?
Cancer in the colon or rectum is particularly rampant in the United States. It is the second leading cause of cancer-related death, and about 136,717 people are diagnosed each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The survival rate for people who are diagnosed at the earliest stage is 74 percent. That drops to 6 percent for people diagnosed at stage four, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).
Add to that the high number of people age 50 and older who should get colon cancer screenings, but don’t. Only about one in three are current on their colorectal cancer screenings, reports the CDC.
This grim picture has led medical researchers and nutrition experts to try to pinpoint causes and methods of prevention. One of those targets has been meat consumption. All told, there are several studies out there: Some have found no danger in eating meat and others give dire warnings. So, it’s easy to get confused.
We did some digging to get answers to the most commonly held ideas about the dangers of eating meat
1. Red meat causes colon cancer…maybe
The jury is still out on this one. And the verdicts swing back and forth: When one study says red meat is indeed linked to colorectal cancer, another comes right behind it with the opposite conclusion.
Back in 2005, the Journal of the American Medical Association flat out said yes — consuming red and processed meat brings a higher risk of colorectal cancer. Between 1982 and 2001, 1,700 out of the nearly 150,000 people studied who had been diagnosed with colorectal cancer reported eating high amounts of red and processed meat.
Later, in 2007, a large-scale study in Japan, published in the journal Cancer Science, found no association between high intake of red and processed meats and colorectal cancers.
Other research groups have tried to join together several past studies to do a collective analysis, and the results run the gamut.
“There’s not a one-to-one link — it’s not 100 percent,” says Dr. Joaquin Estrada of the conflicting research. Estrada is a colorectal surgeon at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “I tell my patients to eat red meats in moderation, supplementing with high fiber foods, such as whole grain oats, leafy greens and raw fruits and vegetables. We know those foods are protective against colon cancer.”
2. If eating meat has no sure link to colon cancer, we can eat all the meat we want, right?
Not so fast. Even though the research is not conclusive, there’s still plenty of reason to be cautious.
A large study published in the March 2009 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine put more than 500,000 seniors, between ages 50 and 70 to the test. Researchers followed them for 10 years. By then, about 71,252 of the people had passed away. Results showed those who ate the most red and processed meat, had elevated risks of overall death. They also had elevated risks of dying from cancer and heart disease.
Also, the ACS lists high consumption of red meat as a risk factor for colorectal cancer. ACS doesn’t say remove it from your diet completely, but does say taking the following steps are your best bet:
- Limit your intake of processed meats such as bacon, sausage, lunch meats, and hot dogs.
- If you eat red meat, choose lean cuts and eat smaller portions.
- Prepare meat, poultry, and fish by baking, broiling, or poaching rather than by frying or charbroiling.
Estrada also says people need to consider other factors that increase cancer risk, like family history: “If a patient has a strong family history for colon cancer, choosing foods that we do know prevent cancer.”
3. What about chicken and fish?
Here’s the bright spot. We may be still building a case for or against red meat, but chicken and fish have been found to actually reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. The 2007 Japanese study found that eating fish could decrease the risk, particularly for rectal cancer.
The ACS even recommends that next time red meat is on the menu, choose fish or poultry instead.
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health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care sites, also including freelance or intern writers.