Weighing-in: Meat and cancer

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By Katie Cohen-Olivenstein RD

Feeling confused and overwhelmed with all the headlines about red and processed meats and cancer risk? You’re not alone.

 

In fact, I think most people were quite confused when the initial report came out from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – a group of experts who analyze evidence on how likely certain things are to cause cancer. But before we dive into the details of the report and its potential impact on our everyday lives, let’s take a look at exactly what kinds of foods are the supposed culprits.

Red Meat:

Beef, veal, lamb, mutton, horse, goat, and pork. Pork is often referred to as “the other white meat” but nonetheless falls into the red meat category.

Processed Meat:

Meat that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or has undergone other processes to improve preservation. Some examples are hot dogs, bacon, sausage, ham, salami, and jerky.

 

Now that we know which foods in particular we’re referring to, let’s get back to the report itself. It aimed to evaluate whether eating red meat or processed meat causes cancer. The result?

The short of it:

Red meat and processed meat aren’t equally harmful. Processed meat definitely causes colorectal cancer and red meat probably causes colorectal cancer. How much cancer do these foods cause? Now that’s a good question.

 

The long of it:

A person who eats 50 grams of processed meat every day, compared to a person who doesn’t eat any processed meat, increases their risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. This statement is inherently misguiding, leading some to believe that if they eat processed meats on a daily basis, they have an 18% chance, or a 1 in 5 chance, of getting colorectal cancer when in reality, it is the risk of developing colorectal cancer that becomes 1.18 times higher.

The IARC’s purpose is to conduct research on the various causes of cancer. Does cigarette smoking cause cancer? Does alcohol consumption cause cancer? These are the types of questions the IARC examines. They do not comment on how much cancer or how many people will get cancer as a result of smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol. And the same rule applies for the discussion of red and processed meats.

But…didn’t we already know a lot of this stuff already? 

The truth is, a lot of these concepts aren’t necessarily new ideas. There’s tons of evidence out there, old and new, that make links between red and/or processed meats and cancers and other diseases. A lot of us know that we should be eating red meat “in moderation” and that bacon, hot dogs, and cold cuts aren’t necessarily the best choices for our healthy diet.

What this new information reinforces is that eating large amounts of red and/or processed meats on a regular basis for an extended period of time doesn’t exactly put us on the path to living a long and healthy life.

“Give up bacon? No way.”

Special shout out to gym-goers and workout fanatics. Knowing that saturated fat is no longer an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, have you started piling-on the bacon again? Fat does plays a unique and important role as part of a balanced diet, but its important not to lose sight of food quality. Just because your cardiovascular risk may be unaffected by stacking-on bacon (read: saturated fat) every morning, that doesn’t mean that other risks aren’t involved. Eating a variety of healthy sources of fat (think: mono- and polyunsaturated sources) in the proper portion size promotes heart health and will help keep you feeling full. Making these choices on a consistent basis will not only help you attain and maintain your nutrition and fitness goals in the short term, but will help you towards life-long health years down the road.

So, how does all of this information translate into recommendations for your everyday life?

Essentially, nutrition advice remains the same. Enjoy a real-food diet filled with vegetables, fruits, whole-food starches, healthy fats and a variety of lean sources of animal and plant-based protein. Exploring plant-based sources of protein can also be a budget and earth-friendly alternative to red meat and another factor to consider in this debate.

But we can’t ignore the nutritional attributes of meat as a good source of protein, iron, and zinc. For those of you who are real red meat lovers, look for good quality grass fed meat at your grocery store or local butcher shop, which offers a healthier fatty acid profile. And to those processed meat lovers, choose a better quality charcuterie. Not because they pose less of a risk, but because boosting your enjoyment and quality of food is a much better approach than a negative notion of eating less of your favorite foods.

Here are some practical tips to guide you:

  • Include protein-containing foods from a variety of sources – chicken, turkey, fish, seafood, and plant-based protein (beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc…) in order to displace red and processed meat meals.

  • Eat less red meat by substituting ground turkey in your favourite recipes.

  • Focus on portion size – a piece the size of your palm and the thickness of your pinky finger is all you need. Regardless of your protein choices, they should only take up ¼ of your plate.

  • Choose leaner cuts of red meat whenever possible.

  • For you home-cured prosciutto fiends out there, try limiting your consumption of processed meats and make sure the rest of your diet is loaded with other protective plant-based compounds too. Simply put, the less you eat, the lower the risk.

The fact that this report became so newsworthy really excites the foodie/nutrition-nerd within! It gives us all the opportunity to start a dialogue about healthy eating and allows us to be a little more mindful about the food choices we make.

Until we meat again…

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