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Does the American Cancer Society Promote Meat?

The American Cancer Society guidelines recommend a mostly plant-based diet, and that consumers limit their intake of processed and red meat.  

This is an area we’ve worked in and studied for years. American Cancer Society investigators did foundational work identifying red and processed meat’s link to cancer. That work provided key evidence that contributed to the World Health Organization's determination of red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen (probably carcinogenic to humans) and processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans - the same category as tobacco). Our guidelines point to evidence of a significant link between high red and processed meat consumption and an increased risk of colorectal cancer as the primary reason for the recommendation to limit those products.

Organizations that do comprehensive evidence reviews and make dietary recommendations currently do not include recommendations against poultry, fish, or dairy. Several studies have suggested that foods high in calcium, such as dairy and green leafy vegetables, might help reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, but a high calcium intake has also been linked with an increased risk of prostate cancer. Because of that, men should try to get – but not exceed – recommended levels of calcium, mainly through food sources.

Our dietary guidelines have recommended a diet rich in plant foods ever since we published our first special report on diet and cancer prevention in 1984. That’s because evidence has suggested eating vegetables and fruit may lower the risk for some types of cancers.

Our guidelines also note that vegetarian diets can be quite health-promoting. They tend to be low in saturated fat and high in fiber, vitamins, and phytochemicals, and do not include eating red and processed meats. Our guidelines do say that vegetarian diets may be helpful in lowering cancer risk, however, the data are not yet clear that vegetarian diets are more beneficial than a healthy diet that contains a small amount of animal products.

The bottom line is it's clear reducing red and processed meat consumption is beneficial. What is not so clear is whether totally eliminating them adds any additional benefit. And being that our guidelines are evidence-based, we have to stick to what we know. 

As always, we’ll continue to adjust our guidelines and recommendations based on the best scientific evidence available.

You can read here for more information about our dietary recommendations for reducing cancer risk.

Note: many of the claims arise out of a documentary called "What the Health." Others have gone into detail about the claims made in the documentary:

Vox: Debunking What the Health, the buzzy new documentary that wants you to be vegan

Diet Doctor: 'What the Health' Review: Health Claims Backed by No Solid Evidence 

Science-Based Medicine: What the Health: A Movie with an Agenda