Ham increases cancer risk. Should I stop eating it?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), eating ham increases your risk of contracting colon cancer. In fact, it’s not just ham. The WHO have officially classified all processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen (carcinogenic to humans), so bacon, sausages, and hot dogs are on the list too, along with any other meats that have been cured, salted, smoked, or fermented. Does this mean I need to give up my daily ham sandwiches then?

What are the risks of processed meats causing cancer?

According to the WHO report, eating just 50 grams of ham (or any other processed meat) per day could raise a person’s risk of developing colon cancer by 18%. Although that initially sounds a lot, you have to remember that it’s 18% of whatever your risk already is. Therefore, if you originally had a 5% chance of contracting cancer, an 18% increase would mean that you now have a 5.9% chance of contracting cancer. It may not sound like much, but any increase is a bad thing. You also have to consider that in somebody with a 50% risk, that would shoot up to 59%. That is significant.

This causes a worry for me, as I eat a 113 gram packet of ham per day, five days a week, so that would increase my risk by something closer to 30-40%, depending on how accurately the figures scale up! So, what do I do?

What are the alternatives to eating processed meats?

Clearly, the best option is to give up eating ham altogether, but alternatives are hard to find, as ham provides me with a decent amount of protein, whilst also being relatively low in fat. The suggested alternative is switching to a meat that isn’t processed, like chicken or fish, but those bring their own problems.

As somebody who does weight training several times a week, I like to get a decent protein intake from my meals. Up until about a year ago, a significant amount of my daily protein intake used to come from tinned tuna. In fact, I used to eat a small tin of tuna everyday, until stories arose about high levels of mercury in tuna, causing me to cut it out completely. Now I have a similar problem with ham.

I could switch to chicken slices in my sandwiches, but I developed a moral objection to eating chicken due to the live ones that visit my garden, along with other fowl, every day. I never ever thought I’d be a vegetarian (mainly as I don’t like any fruits or vegetables), but the more I’ve been exposed to animals on a daily basis, the less I want to be eating them. I could get away with ham, as there are no pigs around here, but chicken is just too difficult. Without meat in my diet though, my daily diet is basically bread, pasta, and milk (with a Belvita breakfast biscuit).

A couple of years back, I started having Quorn slices in my daily sandwiches, as it’s high in protein, but very low in fact. Taste wise, both the chicken and turkey flavoured slices are hard to tell from the real thing. However, a packet of Quorn slices costs nearly three times as much as a cheap packet of ham, and, as a “struggling artiste”, that’s significant.

This is the core of the problem. We’re discovering now that more and more meats are bad for us, plus there are those who avoid meat for moral reasons, but the fact is that meat is a relatively cheap source of protein. I spend hours scouring the Tesco website for a suitable food replacement that offers the same protein at a similar price, without huge amounts of fat like cheese, and there aren’t many about.

Meat-free substitutes like Quorn are still seen as expensive novelties for “rich people”, so, until a cheaper alternative becomes available, many less well off people will continue to eat their daily meat, even though they know they’re risking their health. After all, numerous warnings about the dangers of a high fat diet haven’t stopped people living on fast food, have they?