When it comes to fighting cancer through diet, it’s all about moderation

Avoiding processed meats and meats that are cooked at a high heat where carcinogens are added can help reduce cancer risks. (Photo by Eboni Johnson/Cronkite News)

You don’t have to go vegetarian.

If you heard Monday’s World Health Organization report that stated processed meat causes colorectal cancer, and wish to mitigate those risks, then consider moderation in your diet, said a Mayo Clinic oncologist.

“If we encourage moderation across our population, that will be beneficial to those who are at somewhat increased risk of cancer if they also moderate their behaviors,” said Dr. Donald Northfelt, a professor of medicine at Mayo who specializes in cancer clinical studies and survivorship.

It’s just like with alcohol consumption, Northfelt said, if someone is more susceptible to cancer, excess alcohol consumption would give them a boost in cancer risk. The information from the report will be “powerful” to help people avoid cancer risk, Northfelt said.

The WHO report states each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily, which would only be about two strips of bacon, increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. And the risks increase with the amount of meat consumed, the report stated.

When Northfelt meets with patients who wish to avoid cancer or who have cancer already, he places a strong emphasis on personal behaviors, such as smoking, nutrition and physical activity.

“I’ll point out that the cancer risk associated with eating processed meat on a regular basis. That risk is dwarfed by the risk created by smoking tobacco,” he said.

A holistic approach to personal behavior not only helps lower cancer risk, but also the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes – as well as many other benefits, he said.

The report begins by stating red meat’s nutritional value, but it emphasizes that avoiding processed meats and meats that are cooked at a high heat where carcinogens are added are the things the medical community needs to remind people to avoid to reduce cancer risk, Northfelt said.

After the report was released on Monday, the Internet exploded with scare headlines and stories. But it didn’t demand that everyone turn into a vegetarian.

The United Nations agency report was developed to inform citizens of the world about risks and harms they may face with certain types of meat, Northfelt said.

“The scientists consider the association between meat consumption, particularly processed meat consumption, and the risk for colorectal cancer to be so clear and so great that they believe it’s necessary to alert the world to this phenomenon,” he said.

When speaking with patients who are fighting cancer, nutritionist Cynthia Thomson tells them to prepare their plates so at least half of it is filled with vegetables.

But nutritionists understand that individual preferences and cultural beliefs influence people’s eating habits, and so they have to advise people to change their eating habits over time, said Thomson, director of the University of Arizona Canyon Ranch Center for Prevention and Health Promotion.

“It’s one of those things that we have to be sensible and that ideally we’d like you to eat a plant-based diet to reduce your cancer risks,” she said.