Does Processed Meat Increase Breast Cancer Risk?

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A study suggests that eating processed meat is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer. Still, the study leaves many questions unanswered, and the researchers do not suggest that people eliminate processed meats from their diets.

The research was published in the September 5, 2018 issue of the International Journal of Cancer. Read the abstract of “Consumption of red and processed meat and breast cancer incidence: A systematic review and meta-analysis of prospective studies.”

This study was a meta-analysis. A meta-analysis combines and analyzes the results of a number of earlier studies. In this case, the researchers reviewed 15 studies published before January 2018 looking at associations between eating red and processed meats and breast cancer incidence.

This meta-analysis follows a 2016 report by the World Health Organization (WHO) saying that eating processed meats is linked to cancer in people. Still, the WHO report said this link was based on limited evidence.

Processed meat refers to meat that has been salted, cured, smoked, fermented, or processed in another way to enhance its flavor or preserve it. Some examples of processed meats are hot dogs, ham, sausages, beef jerky, bacon, and corned beef. Red meat refers to beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat.

The researchers found that compared to people who ate the lowest amounts of processed meats in the studies, people who ate the highest amounts of processed meats had a 9% higher risk of breast cancer.

The researchers found no link between eating unprocessed red meat, such as a steak or pork roast, and a higher risk of breast cancer.

Still, before you throw out all your bacon and cold cuts, it’s important to remember that the meta-analysis is talking about a relative increase in breast cancer risk.

The average woman in the United States has about a 12% risk of breast cancer. For women who eat a lot of bacon or other processed meats, this risk would go up by 1% (12% x 9%), for a risk of about 13%. It’s worth pointing out that smoking three cigarettes per day increases your risk of cancer by 500%.

It’s also worth noting that in the introduction to the meta-analysis, the researchers say, “Prior studies on red and processed meat consumption with breast cancer risk have generated inconsistent results.” The researchers then analyzed the inconsistent results and came to a conclusion.

The researchers also didn’t suggest that people stop eating processed meats, and experts advised people to view the results cautiously.

“The paper leaves many questions unanswered and does not prove that increased processed meat intake led directly to breast cancer in the women studied,” said Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at Open University in the UK, in an interview with CNN.

“I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorize people into thinking that they should not eat any red meat at all,” said John Ioannidis, M.D., chairperson of disease prevention at Stanford University, in an interview when the WHO report was issued. “There’s some risk involved, but it’s much less than smoking or alcohol. I think it would be an exaggeration to say based on this that no one should be eating red or processed meat. There is still a lot of uncertainty.”

According to statistics from the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), smoking is the biggest risk factor for all types of cancer. The AACR estimates the number of preventable cancers caused by specific risk factors to be:

  • smoking: 33%
  • obesity: 20%
  • lack of exercise: 5%
  • diet: 5%
  • work exposure: 5%
  • alcohol: 3%
  • environmental pollutants: 2%

Keep in mind that these numbers are for all types of cancer, not just breast cancer. So, to keep your risk of cancer as low as it can be, not smoking and staying at a healthy weight seem to be the two smartest things to do.

If you want to do all that you can to keep your risk of breast and other cancers as low as it can be, there are lifestyle choices you may want to consider, including:

  • not smoking
  • maintaining a healthy weight
  • exercising every day
  • eating a healthy diet that’s low in processed foods, sugar, and trans fats
  • limiting or avoiding alcohol
  • breastfeeding, if you have the option to do so

To learn more about breast cancer risk and other options to keep your risk as low as it can be, visit the Breastcancer.org Lower Your Risk section.


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