Have colon cancer? Skip the hot dogs, deli, and burgers

Caitlin Kennedy, Ph.D.

New research shows that eating red meat and processed meat increases the risk of colon cancer or of dying from colon cancer. The 2013 Cancer Prevention study by the American Cancer Society has been studying the impact of diet on cancer by following 184,000 patients for 18 years.1

Among the men and women diagnosed with colon cancer, those who ate more than 4 servings per week of red or processed meat before and after they were diagnosed with colon cancer were significantly more likely to die from colon cancer than those who ate fewer than 4 servings per week. Processed meats include deli foods such as hot dogs, sausage, bacon, and bologna, ham and other lunch meats, and bacon. Those who ate more than 4 servings per week had a 79% higher risk of dying from colon cancer compared to those who ate these foods less often. Those who had a family history of colon cancer and ate these foods frequently were especially likely to die from colon cancer.

Remember that “portion” sizes are smaller than what many people typically eat in a meal. For example, 2 hot dogs are considered 2 portions, and one double quarter pound hamburger is considered 3 portions. A large steak could be counted as 3 portions or even more.

Previous research has found connections between eating red meat frequently and an increased likelihood of being diagnosed with colon cancer and other health problems. However, this study is the first to show an increased risk of death from colon cancer.

Bottom line

These very popular foods are more harmful than any of us would like to think. The best way to prevent a variety of health problems, including colon cancer, is to limit red and processed meats in your diet. While the chicken or turkey you make in your oven is fine, the processed chicken and turkey sold at the deli counter or packaged in the supermarket are processed foods. Unfortunately, grilled foods including grilled chicken have also been associated with colon cancer.2 Fish and beans are other healthier sources of protein. If you have a family history of colon cancer, you should be especially careful to eat red and processed meats less frequently. Keep in mind that the American Cancer Society study found an increased chance of dying from colon cancer for men and women who ate these foods either before or after they were diagnosed with colon cancer.

The good news is that it’s never too late to start eating healthy and cutting back on your red and processed meat consumption! Even if someone is already diagnosed with colon cancer, eating less red meat and less processed meat can increase the chances of cancer survival.

  1. McCullough ML, Gapstur SM, Shah R, Jacobs EJ, & Campbell PT. Association between red and processed meat intake and mortality among colorectal cancer survivors. Journal of Clinical Oncology 2013: pre-print online version. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2013.49.1126  
  2. Sinha R, Peters U, Cross AJ, Kulldorff M, Weissfeld JL, Pinsky PF, Rothman N, Hayes RB, & Prostate, Lung, Colorectal, and Ovarian Cancer Project Team. Meat, Meat Cooking Methods and Preservation, and Risk for Colorectal Adenoma. Cancer Research, 2005: 65; 8034. doi: 10.1158/0008-5472.CAN-04-3429