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Does Red Meat Cause Cancer?

June 26, 2024

Hamburger and hotdog season is in full swing. Or maybe you’re more of a steak-on-the-grill person.

But are you at higher risk of cancer if you regularly eat red meat?

We asked Michael Selden, MD, a gastroenterologist with Hartford HealthCare, about the link between cancer and red meat.

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Different meats have different levels of risk.

Certain meats are more carcinogenic than others, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Unprocessed red meats like beef, pork, veal, lamb, goat and venison are classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Processed meats on the other hand, like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, salami, beef jerky and bologna are “carcinogenic to humans.”

“Red meat contains heme iron, and processed meat also contains nitrates, both of which promote the formation of N-nitroso carcinogenic compounds. These compounds can cause cancer in some people,” Dr. Selden says.

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Your cooking method also has an impact.

The way we cook meat can also affect the risk it poses us, Dr. Selden continues.

High temperature cooking such as grilling and pan frying can produce carcinogenic chemicals that we ingest with each bite, he says.

To lower you risk, Dr. Selden suggests mixing in more healthy cooking techniques such as:

  • Baking
  • Steaming
  • Boiling

> Related: Can Eating Burnt Food Cause Cancer?

Is it time to eliminate red meat from my diet?

Going cold turkey and eliminating all red meat consumption isn’t necessary to reduce your chances of developing cancer, Dr. Selden says. At this point, there is limited evidence that red meat — processed or not — directly causes colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancers.

In the mean time, the best advice is moderation.

“While we continue to study the connection between red meat and cancer, it’s best to consume less than 18 ounces (cooked weight) of red meat per week. Limit yourself to 3 or 4 ounces of meat per serving and eat it three times a week at most,” Dr. Selden suggests. “And try to limit unprocessed meats as much as possible.”

In place of meat, you can try out some new protein sources.

“I suggest incorporating more plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, fish and poultry into your weekly meal plan,” Dr. Selden says.