plate with cured meat, cheese, and pickles

by Dr. Amber Merrick, N.D.

The World Health Organization issued a statement today that eating processed meats, including bacon and sausage, can increase your risk of colon cancer.  As a lover of homemade cured meats, and charcuterie plates I was very upset by this news.   As a devoted naturopathic doctor, however, I decided that health is more important to my patients and myself.  Knowing colon cancer is the fourth most common cause of cancer in Canada and the second most common cause of cancer death, I wanted to delve deeper into the findings.

The France-based International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the WHO, places processed meat in the Group 1 list as “carcinogenic to humans.”   Tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes are also on the Group 1 list.   Processed meat refers to that which has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.   The report’s authors said eating 50 grams of processed meat a day (about 2 pieces of bacon) increased the chance of developing colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.

18% sounds scary…but what do these numbers really mean?

An average human has about a 5% lifetime risk of developing colon cancer (1 in 20).  This risk increases if we are over the age of 50, if you are a man, have a family history of colon cancer or Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s or Colitis).

An 18% increased risk for an average person means that we may increase our lifetime risk from 1 in 20 to about 1 in 16.  So basically, if 16 people ate a high processed meat diet, 1 might develop colon cancer while 15 will not.

Further, there are other factors at play here.  Obesity, and lack of exercise will also increase risk of colon cancer by 30% (1 in 15) in men, and 10% (1 in 18) in women.  This risk increases as waist circumference increases (as high as 1 in 10 for men).

Smoking, alcohol and sugar consumption can also increase risk.

So does anything decrease risk…the answer is an emphatic YES!

Fish, 80 g per day (about one serving) decreases risk of colon cancer by 30% (1 in 30).  2.5 servings of fruits and veggies per day can decrease risk by 60% (1 in 60).  If you have a low fiber diet, doubling your intake to 25 grams per day can decrease risk by 40% (1 in 35).  Also, calcium and vitamin D rich foods (whole dairy, not including milk) can decrease risk of colon cancer by 20% (1 in 25).

Also, 90% of colon cancer can be cured if caught early!  Currently, Cancer Care Ontario recommends regular colon cancer screening for those over the age of 50.  So see your doctor for a fecal occult blood test (FOBT), and/or a screening colonoscopy (for those at higher risk).

So, bottom line, should you stop eating processed meats? I’m not going to. My plan will be to continue to consume 3-5 servings of veggies and fruits per day, exercise for 3 hours per week, eat fish twice per week, drink some red wine and abstain from smoking.  When I’m 50 I’ll get a colonoscopy.  And I will continue to enjoy my cured meat charcuterie and bacon a few days per week.  Happy Eating!!

Dr. Amber Merrick, N.D.
About Dr. Amber Merrick, N.D.
Amber Merrick is a licensed and registered Naturopathic Doctor in St. Catharines, Ontario. Amber feels Naturopathy is not only a profession but a lifestyle. She aspires to live a highly energetic and healthy lifestyle. She can coach you to wellness as she has coached countess others.
plate with cured meat, cheese, and pickles
Can I still eat bacon? A Naturopathic Perspective on the recent WHO colon cancer findings