WHO Chimes in on Meats: What it Means for Your Health


Heard lots of panic about the latest IARC (WHO) announcement on red meat? Here's the background you need to put that panic in perspective:


Who is WHO's IARC and what do they have to do with red and processed meat?

IARC, the International Agency for Research on Cancer headquartered in Lyon, France, operates as part of the World Health Organization. Three times a year, IARC forms working groups to evaluate how something (like certain occupational chemicals, foods, or even the sun) impacts the risk of cancer in people. This quarter, they reviewed red and processed meat and released their report on Monday, October 26 classifying red meat as ‘Group 2A’ and processed meat as ‘Group 1’ (more on the classification definitions here).



What does their classification mean?

Group 1 is defined as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ and Group 2A is defined as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans.’ IARC specifies that its classifications “do not measure the likelihood that cancer will occur (technically called “risk”) as a result of exposure to the agent.” The classifications also don’t capture consideration of quantity- for example, alcohol and sunlight are both Group 1. It’s well established that overexposure to (or overconsumption of) both sunlight and alcohol comes with major health risks. That doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to moderate levels of consumption (hello vitamin D and serotonin!) of things like sunlight. It means we all need to be conscious of getting the right amount. The same goes for types of meat in your diet.

Dr. Roger Clemens points out the need to put IARC’s ruling in perspective:


“These rulings discuss hazard, but they’re reported as risk. For example. sunlight (hazard) is needed for vitamin D synthesis, yet excessive exposure increases one’s risk of skin cancer.  Alcohol is a known liver toxin (hazard), yet when consumed in moderation (exposure) it reduces risk of developing adverse cardiovascular events.  There are many more examples like these. The Lancet article is clear that the evidence is weak or inconsistent.  Importantly, IARC notes that its role is to identify hazard, not causality.”

- Dr. Roger Clemens


What should I do in my diet?

Meat can certainly be part of a healthful, balanced diet, and the key is moderation. Just like sun exposure, too much may increase your health risks, but too little can leave you missing valuable nutrients. At this point, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans haven’t issued recommendations for quantity of meat in the diet. However, the Guidelines have encouraged lean proteins, along with whole grains and vegetables, for a healthful balanced diet. Keep your plate balanced, and be sure to watch your portion sizes.


The right portion size is a cooked 3-ounce serving of lean beef—about the size of a standard deck of playing cards. Of course, total calories, protein, and other nutrients will differ based on the type of meat. There are more than 30 cuts of lean meat in grocery stores; find your favorite, and enjoy with portion sizes in mind! It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of variety within ‘processed meats’ too – it’s worth the time to check the nutrition info on your food to scope out the valuable stuff (Protein! Vitamins!) and make sure it fits in your calorie budget.The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report included 3 USDA dietary patterns which suggest the amount of food to consume from different food groups to meet recommended nutrient intakes at various calorie levels. The 2000 calorie diet includes recommendations for 12.5 ounces of meat (or equivalent) per week, approximately 4 servings, to meet nutrient needs.

Bottom line? Meat is an excellent source of protein and other important nutrients we are lacking in our diets. It packs a great nutritional punch. By controlling portion size and choosing lean cuts and nutritious options, red and processed meat can be part of a healthful diet.  


What can you do to limit your colorectal cancer (CRC) risk?

Dr. Julie Jones identified the action steps we all should be taking for our health that are needed to reduce your risk or colorectal cancer:

"Too little exercise is another problem that increases colon cancer.  Too many calories is the other big promoter of colon cancer.  Matching calories to needs, right sizing meat portions and eating the recommended foods from all the food groups is a boring but proven strategy.  Suggesting that colon cancer rates could be decreased by lowering meat and processed meat intake is like saying that you can stop the bathroom flooding if you unclog the drain without turning off all the taps.  Colon cancer rates will only be addressed if consumers start to eat a diet that has the right stuff – the right number of calories, the right amount of dietary fiber, fruits and vegetables and dairy, substances shown to be protective against colon cancer, eat the recommended size servings of meat and exercise." - Dr. Julie Jones

This blog includes contributions from Sarah Romotsky, RD.