A hospital stay shouldn’t put a patient at risk for cancer. But it can—if the menu includes hot dogs, sausage and other processed meat, which the World Health Organization has declared carcinogenic and placed in the same category as tobacco smoking. In Peoria, Children’s Hospital of Illinois serves “small corn dogs,” and Kindred Hospital Peoria provides sausages and hot dogs.
As a dietitian, I know it takes very little processed meat to increase colorectal cancer risk. WHO highlighted a meta-analysis that concluded that each 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily—the amount in a hot dog—increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. In Illinois, there were 6,251 new cases of colorectal cancer in 2015 and 2,342 colorectal cancer deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute for Cancer Research (AIRC) also say that “the evidence on processed meat and cancer is clear-cut” in the newly released “Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective.”
I’m especially concerned about children, who may have a greater risk for colorectal cancer at an earlier age than previous generations. A recent analysis found that adults born around 1990 have twice the risk of colon cancer and four times the risk of rectal cancer compared with adults born around 1950.
Because rates are increasing in young people, the American Cancer Society recently released guidelines that colorectal cancer screening should begin at age 45. The guidelines list high consumption of processed meat and low consumption of fruits, vegetables and other dietary fiber as risk factors. A significant proportion of colorectal cancer incidence in 2014 was attributable to these and other lifestyle factors.
The good news is that some hospitals are paying attention and dropping hot dogs from menus. Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis and Kentucky Children’s Hospital in Lexington have both removed hazardous hot dogs from menus.
Hospitals could do even more to help patients fight colorectal cancer by adding more plant-based options. The recent WCRF/AICR report says that “basing our diets around plant foods (like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans), which contain fiber and other nutrients, can reduce our risk of cancer.” In fact, eating just three servings of whole grains per day can reduce colorectal cancer risk by 17 percent, according to another recent report published by the WCRF/AICR.
Medical authorities have taken notice. Last year, the American Medical Association passed a Healthy Food Options in Hospitals resolution that calls on U.S. hospitals to improve the health of patients, staff and visitors by eliminating processed meat and providing plant-based meals. The American College of Cardiology made the same recommendation in “Planting a Seed: Heart-Healthy Food Recommendations for Hospitals.”
Besides saving patient lives, these changes can also save hospitals money. St. Joseph Health System in Sonoma County, Calif., reports, “Vegetarian entrées cost about 50 percent less than meat entrées.” The hospital projects saving $5,000 a year by serving more meat-free meals.
If you agree that Children’s Hospital of Illinois and Kindred Hospital Peoria should stop including cancer-causing hot dogs in patient meals, and instead provide healthful plant-based options, then please visit www.MakeHospitalsHealthy.org and add your name to the Physicians Committee’s letter to hospital CEOs.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is director of nutrition education for the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.