Last month, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a report on the potential cancer risks associated with consuming certain types of red and processed meats. The study got a tremendous amount of media attention because … well, bacon. Most Americans read the headlines and immediately decided that regardless of what science has to say—a life without burgers or bacon or, better yet, burgers wrapped in bacon — is no life at all. Give me bacon or give me death!
Before we get too disgruntled about all the headlines, let’s get to the meat, literally the meat, of the study. What exactly were the findings and what meaningful information can we glean from it? And besides our diets, what other factors are important in not only causing cancer, but how about preventing it in the first place?
The study was conducted by a working group of 22 IARC experts who evaluated over 800 published articles from around the world. To make a long study short, the overall findings concluded:
Red meat included more than just beef – veal, pork, lamb, mutton, goat and … wait for it …. horse. Processed meat was defined as meat that had been “transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes used to enhance flavor or improve preservation” (NYDailyNews). Mes amis up in Cajun country, you’re not going to like this, but processed meat included bacon, hot dogs, ham, sausages, corned beef, pepperoni, salami, jerky, and canned meats. And the double whammy – red meat or processed meat cooked with high temperature methods like grilling and pan-frying — produced the highest amount of carcinogens. (Gulp. I just hosted a backyard “I-Do-BBQ” engagement party for some dear friends a few weekends ago.)
As much as I believe the WHO endeavors to do its utmost to carefully assess potential carcinogens in our world, their findings can be a bit confusing and unintentionally misleading. An article in the Atlantic even joked about certain scientific organizations being “confusogenic to humans.” Their classification system is based on strength of evidence, NOT degree of risk. Their five separate categories (Group 1, 2A, 2B, 3, and 4) are determined by the certainty we have that something is dangerous, not exactly HOW dangerous that something really might be. The Cancer Research UK and the BBC both have provided helpful infographics that clearly and accurately visualize the findings with regards to these five categories. The most precarious Group 1 substances have the potential to cause cancer – meaning that not everyone who smokes cigarettes or eats 10 beef jerky sticks a day will definitively get the disease. Researchers hypothesize it is particular chemicals (naturally occurring and/or ones formed through processing) present in meat that are the culprits. We still haven’t pinpointed the exact mechanism on how these chemicals in meat cause cells in the human body to mutate and become cancerous.
For starters, this information is not new. The word has been out on the health risks of red meat for years. Scratch that, decades. Reducing saturated animals fats in our diets goes back to 1959 with Ancel and Margaret Keys’ “Eat Well and Stay Well” book for dietary advice to prevent heart disease. Their recommendations to “restrict saturated fats, the fats in beef, pork, lamb, sausages” were mentioned in an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1963. Loads of meticulous research has been done–notably on bowel cancer and meat consumption–and this evidence has been building for decades. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AIRC) has advocated that we avoid processed meat and limit consumption of red meats. I don’t want to beat a dead horse here, but trust me, the studies are numerous. Cancer is a complex beast and we are all unique in our genetic make-ups and vulnerabilities. The reality remains that most people simply aren’t consuming worrisome quantities of these meats on a consistent daily basis. Go ahead, all of you disciplined carnivores, and let out a giant collective squeal of joy.
So, what’s the take-home message? Red meat and even processed meat in moderation is fine with respect to cancer. How much is moderate? We don’t really know. I personally recommend limiting meals with red meat to 2-3 times a month and processed meats should be a rare treat. If you are pigging out on these foods more than a few times each week and you are interested in living a long, healthy, cancer-free life, then you need to cut back. The rest of you who are eating fairly sensibly most of the time, feel free to enjoy a steak or some lamb chops occasionally without guilt. Be especially mindful of those processed meats–sausages and pepperonis might be delectable, but they should be reserved for special occasions. And start listening to your body. Our bodies don’t lie. If there is something in your diet that is not serving you well, you will most likely have symptoms–gas, bloating, reflux, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, etc. Take a moment and reflect on your digestion and energy level. Slipping into a “food coma” after eating is not the sign of a good meal. Meat can be difficult to digest, but there are plenty of other food offenders out there that can cause inflammation and wreak havoc on our bodies. Consider doing an anti-inflammatory diet or getting blood work done to determine if you have any food allergies or intolerances.
If really want to tell cancer who’s boss, make healthy foods and activities a priority. Stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep, move your body everyday, maintain a healthy body weight, and make sure you are managing your stress effectively. Eat whole foods–you get more nourishment from these foods, they are easier to digest, and you don’t have to worry about hidden ingredients or excessive amounts of fat, sodium, and sugar. Eat nutritionally dense fruits and veggies (organic when possible; see EWG’s Dirty Dozen list) with known antioxidants and cancer-fighting phytochemicals (see Bastyr University Nutrition and Cancer guide here). And fiber! Fiber is so important, especially for the health of our digestive tracts. Aim for 30-50 grams a day–conservative guidelines recommend 25 grams/day for women and 38 grams/day for men.
My public service announcement for the day: Get your vitamin D levels checked and start supplementing if you are low. Studies are revealing the important role vitamin D plays in preventing certain cancers–especially in our gastrointestinal tract. Get anti-inflammatory fats on board by eating cold-pressed oils, fatty cold water fish, flax seeds, walnuts, and chia seeds. Algae oil is a great alternative omega-3 source for people who avoid fish; an added bonus is it is a more sustainable option. The fact remains that most Americans eat TOO much protein each day, which is not necessarily a good thing. Make sure you are getting the right amount. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for an average adult is 0.8 grams per kilogram body weight. Multiply your body weight in pounds by 0.36 to get an estimate of the amount of protein you need each day. Be aware that there is a whole world of delicious plant-based protein sources to choose from—and (ask the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, PCRM), it is a complete myth that you have to eat animals or animal products to meet your daily protein requirements. And oh, hey, there is always that fancy new seaweed we just discovered that tastes like bacon.
I will save my rant on CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) for another day, but I do want to leave you with one final thought. We as consumers can do better. We have a lot of power with our pocketbooks and our forks–we vote at every meal and with every trip to the grocery store or farmers market. Make informed and conscious decisions about the meat you buy and eat. As Michael Pollan said, “You are what you eat eats.” Don’t support companies or people who raise unhealthy, mistreated animals pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. It’s not good for the animals, it’s not good for you, and it’s not good for our planet. Industry has made it easy for the connection between eater and eaten to be lost and our current food system quite frankly relies on people being ignorant.
Let’s enjoy delicious meals and make an effort to be grateful and aware of how our food got to our plates. “Eating with the fullest pleasure – pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance – is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world.” Yes indeed Wendell Berry. Yes indeed.
Editor’s note: Lydia Lynn will be lecturing on botanicals at Longue Vue House and Gardens at 6 p.m. Thursday. For more information click here.