How Bad Is Bacon?

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How many years of life are lost to potentially preventable cancers? Every year, more than five million expected years of life are lost to lung cancer, breast cancer, and colorectal cancer alone; “[t]herefore, identifying and improving strategies for prevention of cancer remains a priority…” This is especially important since “not more than 2% of all human cancer is attributable to purely genetic or congenital factors.” The rest involve external factors such as our diet, as I discuss in my video How Much Cancer Does Lunch Meat Cause?.

The most comprehensive summary of evidence on diet and cancer ever compiled recommends we should eat mostly foods of plant origin to help prevent cancer. This means centering one’s diet on plant foods—not just whole grains and beans every day, but every meal.

When it comes to foods that may increase cancer risk, the summary was similarly bold. Unlike many other dietary guidelines that wimp out and just advise people to “moderate” their intake of bad foods (like eat less candy), the cancer guidelines don’t mince words when it came to the worst of the worst. For example, don’t just minimize soda intake; avoid it. Don’t just cut back on bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage, and lunch meats; avoid processed meats because “data do not show any level of intake that can confidently be shown not to be associated with risk.”

Processed meat cannot only be thought of as a “powerful multi-organ carcinogen,” but it may increase the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Red meat is bad, but processed meat is worse, and that includes white meat like chicken and turkey slices. So, with more heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, it’s no surprise “[p]rocessed meat consumption [has been] associated with increased risk of death.”

The second-largest prospective study ever done on diet and cancer involved more than 400,000 people in Europe. Researchers calculated that by reducing processed meat consumption to less than about a quarter of a hot dog per day, more than 3 percent of all deaths would be prevented.

The largest study, with 600,000 people, was the AARP study done in the United States. Researchers found the preventable fraction of deaths to be much higher than 3 percent, suggesting, for example, that 20 percent of heart disease deaths among women could be averted if the highest consumers cut down to less than approximately a half strip of bacon a day.

More information on processed meat can be found in videos such as:

But cancer risk has been associated with unprocessed meat as well through a variety of potential mechanisms:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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