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Unmasking the Connection: Meat-Heavy Diets, Cancer, and the Promise of Plant-Based Alternatives

As a physician, I have witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of cancer on the lives of my patients and their families. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1 in 6 deaths worldwide are due to cancer, making it the second leading cause of death globally. In the United States alone, around two million new cancer cases and 600,000 cancer deaths are estimated to occur in 2023. As healthcare professionals work to better understand the risk factors behind cancer, it’s crucial that the impact of diet is considered. Specifically, it’s crucial that emerging evidence showing meat consumption to be a major risk factor for cancer development be taken seriously.


In recent years, the American Cancer Society (ACS) has published findings that suggest a strong link between meat-heavy diets and increased cancer risk. Alongside “obvious” risk factors like excessive drinking and tobacco use, the ACS has sounded the alarm on the potential role of red and processed meat in cancer development. As noted in the ACS Guideline for Diet and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention, “evidence that red and processed meats increase cancer risk has existed for decades, and many health organizations recommend limiting or avoiding these foods.”


The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has affirmed there is “strong evidence” that red meat consumption is linked to colorectal cancer, and has noted potential links to increased risk of pancreatic and prostate cancer. Given that colorectal cancer rates nearly doubled among Americans under 55 between 1995 to 2019, taking a good, hard look at how diets contribute to the development of the disease is especially pertinent. 


The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a part of the WHO, has classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen, placing it in the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos exposure. Moreover, red meat has been classified as a Group 2A carcinogen, indicating it is 'probably carcinogenic to humans'. As medical professionals, none of us would hesitate to inform patients that their smoking habits risk cancer development. Similarly, we have a duty to inform patients that leading global health bodies have identified carcinogenic risks from red and processed meat consumption.


The exact mechanisms behind the link between meat consumption and increased cancer risk are still being explored. As it stands, common hypotheses include the presence of carcinogenic compounds in processed meats, the production of harmful substances when meat is cooked at high temperatures, and the role of heme iron found in red meat in promoting the formation of carcinogenic compounds. 

Dr. Angie Sadeghi, MD.

October 27, 2023

In light of this evidence, we as healthcare professionals must consider alternative dietary options to reduce cancer risk. Studies increasingly suggest that plant-based diets powered by fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes can protect against various types of cancer. A study published by BMC Medicine found that men who ate the most plant-based foods cut their risk of colorectal cancer by more than 20%.


In recent years, we have seen a surge in the popularity of plant-based meats, which offer a viable alternative for those who wish to reduce their meat consumption without sacrificing taste and texture. Companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have developed innovative plant-based protein products that mimic the taste, texture, and nutritional profile of animal-based meats. Healthcare professionals should welcome the increased accessibility and popularity of these products given the mounting evidence that plant-based diets are good for one’s health.


Research on the health effects of plant-based meats is growing rapidly, consistently proving that they may offer a safer alternative to animal-based meats. One study published in the Journals of the American Medical Association found study participants eating healthy plant-based diets had reduced risks of overall mortality and death due to cancer. 


As medical professionals, we have a responsibility to educate our patients about the link between diet and cancer risk. And as rigorous studies provide more and more evidence that meat-heavy diets are linked to cancer development, healthcare professionals and the general public alike must consider the benefits of plant-based diets. Best of all, by promoting the consumption of plant-based foods, including plant-based meat alternatives, we are also contributing to a more sustainable and compassionate world.

If the connection between your diet and cancer risk has you concerned, it's essential to take action. Your health matters, and we're here to help you make informed decisions about your diet. Schedule an appointment with us to discuss other methods, besides diet, to reduce your risk of colon cancer.

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