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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 22 January, 2020

'Refusing to give up your fry and saying you would prefer to die happy? Trust me, you won’t'

Our bank holiday was ruined by the news report filled with doom that processed meats are officially carcinogenic, writes Fiachra Duffy. So, what next?

Fiachra Duffy

NOTHING SAID SUNDAY more than the breakfast roll after mass. After an eve of festivities the night before it took the strength of God himself to stop me slipping out after Communion to beat the queue for that breaded wonder.

Just as Pat Shortt prophesied; two eggs, two rashers, two sausage, two bacon, two puddings, one black, one white; like manna from heaven itself, it held the cure no matter how under the weather you were.

However, whilst that breakfast roll may have momentarily made me feel a million dollars, it transpires that in the long run, I have likely been causing myself some serious harm, not to mention all those times I thought I was being the good big brother in bringing one home for my little sister too.

Whilst we may have gained an hour there on Sunday, by Monday morning we realised we have likely lost years to our love of the frying pan.

As if the dreary rain wasn’t enough to dampen our bank holiday, every news report the world over rang of doom and gloom; processed meats, they said, were officially declared carcinogenic, with a very big “probably” hanging over red meat in general, particularly in bowel, pancreatic and prostate cancers.

Carcinogenic. Cancer-causing.

After years of ham sandwiches, boiled bacon and fry-ups it’s time to take stock. There isn’t a person here among us who hasn’t experienced cancer, either directly or through watching a loved one suffer.

No doubt there will be comments below from people claiming that they’ll die happy, you can trust me when I say you won’t. Don’t take my word for it though, talk to any cancer patient or survivor and ask them how happy they were after months of combined chemo and radiotherapy, or perhaps ask those on palliative care what they’d give to get back those extra years.

After watching my own mother go through months of fortnightly chemo treatments, sick and exhausted, her skin blistering after every trip to Dublin I know that it goes far beyond bravery to battle that disease and certainly not a time I would ever describe as happy.

She won that fight, but it’s one I would rather never have to face.

Up to 50% of cancers are preventable, 30% being preventable from lifestyle changes alone, yet in Ireland we have the 7th highest cancer rates in the world of which bowel cancer ranks among the highest for both males and females.


The major cancer-causers include: tobacco, excessive alcohol, obesity, inactivity and processed meats.

How many of us are guilty of one or more of these on a regular basis? However, it is becoming clearer exactly what price we will have to pay for these choices.

So what to do about it?

There’s no point looking back with woe, what’s done is done. It’s a new day and with it comes the chance to make choices that are better for you and your loved ones. An extreme jump may work for some, but it’s difficult.

For me, I aim for one change a week and then to maintain it; for instance two weeks ago I started to hard boil an egg for lunch. This week I’ve added cucumber to my sandwiches.

Inch by inch towards health, and as Al Pacino once said, it’s when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the difference between living and dying.

Processed meats are out.

Ham sandwiches are a quick fill for lunchboxes in morning, however, just as you wouldn’t stick in some lunchtime cigarettes for your child it’s time to switch the ham for a healthier alternative (2 slices weigh in just under 50g, enough to raise risk of bowel cancer by 18%). Tinned tuna and sweetcorn or some slices of beetroot bagged in their own juices are my go-to sandwich-fillers now as well as fresh fish, turkey and chicken.

Processed beef burgers, bacon, sausages, salami, pudding (both black and white) and beef jerky all fall into the same carcinogenic category and whilst it is likely that I will still enjoy a fry-up on occasion, an occasion is all it’s going to be; the decisions I make now will ripple through my future years and I have decided I want to spend as many of those years as possible disease free.

What about red meat?

Red meat (beef, pork, lamb, mutton and veal) is classified as probably carcinogenic to humans; there are positive associations between eating red meat and bowel cancer but other explanations cannot be ruled out completely. Given that red meat is such a good source of protein, iron, zinc and B12, including some (preferably lean) red meat in your diet each week can be a good thing.

The World Cancer Research Fund recommends less than 500g (18oz) a week.

These recommendations are essential for every one of every age, however they ring especially true for those in Cork, where there are significantly higher than expected rates of bowel, prostate and pancreatic cancers. (For full list click here and cancer statistics here)

What if I currently have cancer?

These guidelines are for cancer prevention. If you are currently undergoing active treatment then red meat will likely be an important energy and protein source for you so please talk to your dietitian and medical team.

What else can I do?

Eight years ago the World Cancer Research Fund released a set of recommendations for governments and individuals alike and nearly all research since has only further validated them.

Check out the recommendations and questions here by the World Health Organisation and integrate these into your day to day life you have the best chance of reducing your cancer risk.

Keep watch for the new cookbook for cancer prevention being developed by the UCC Nutrition and Cancer research team, Dr. Aoife Ryan, Éadaoin Ní Bhuachalla and Jane Healy, guaranteed to make evidence-based cancer prevention as accessible and tasty as possible.

For the most personalised dietary advice and solutions, trust a dietitian.

Fiachrá Duffy is a Registered Dietitian with the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (@trust_indi) and Operational Officer at You can contact him at or @fiachra_duffy

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