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Dietary guidelines should Include a bacon warning

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The Dietary Guidelines for Americans should not continue to recommend that people eat processed meat, including bacon and hot dogs, especially when evidence shows that it increases the risk of hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions that have helped make COVID-19 so deadly.

When the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee holds its June 8 meeting on the scientific report that will influence the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines, I hope it discusses the overwhelming evidence showing the consequences of consuming processed meat. 

The term processed meats appears nine times in the current guidelines. I’d like to see the term just once — in a warning. Something like: “Processed meat increases the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes and is not part of a healthy diet.” 

The current guidelines give Americans a mixed message. They hint at the dangers: “Strong evidence … has shown that eating patterns that include lower intake of … processed meats … are associated with reduced risk of CVD in adults. Moderate evidence indicates that these eating patterns are associated with reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults.”

But then they turn around and recommend processed meat as part of a healthy diet by stating that the Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern “may include processed meats and processed poultry as long as the resulting eating pattern is within limits for sodium, calories from saturated fats and added sugars, and total calories.”

Science says otherwise. The risks of consuming processed meat were evident when the last guidelines were published, but the evidence against them has continued to mount over the past five years. 

The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research says that “the evidence on processed meat and cancer is clear-cut.” The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified hot dogs and other processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans.” After reviewing more than 800 studies, the WHO concluded that each 50-gram portion of processed meat (about a hot dog) eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Processed meat also raises the risk of breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and overall cancer mortality.

But people who replace processed meat with plant protein can reduce their risk of cancer by up to 50 percent, according to a study in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Processed meat is also linked to hypertension and death from cardiovascular disease. A study published in JAMA found that processed meat consumption was tied to 57,766 deaths from heart disease, stroke, or type 2 diabetes in 2012. Other studies have linked it to health conditions ranging from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to lower sperm quality.

Without interventions, processed meat will remain a problem. A survey of nearly 44,000 U.S. adults found that “despite growing public health concerns about processed meat consumption, there have been no changes in the amount of processed meat consumed by U.S. adults over the last 18 years.” The authors suggest that “findings of this study can inform public health policy priorities for improving diet and reducing chronic disease burden in United States.” 

The American Medical Association and the American College of Cardiology have already made processed meat a priority, both recommending that hospitals remove it from menus.

Taxes and warning labels could also help. A study from Tufts University that found that over a lifetime a 10 percent tax on processed meat could prevent 77,000 colorectal and 12,500 cases of stomach cancer and generate a savings of $1.1 billion in health care costs, while warning labels may prevent 85,400 colorectal and 15,000 cases of stomach cancer with a savings of $1.3 billion from health care costs.

But since the United States doesn’t have processed meat taxes and warning labels, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans need to be clear about the dangers of processed meat. 

Susan Levin, MS, RD, CSSD, is director of nutrition education for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Tags Cancer Colorectal cancer Dietary Guidelines for Americans Dietetics Nutrition

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