Red Meat Causes Cancer? Read On.

I started the week off Monday with a text from someone asking if I’d seen the WHO (World Health Organization) news. I hadn’t, but quickly got up to speed with all the main media sources talking about the latest research that:

“The World Health Organisation is to list processed meat among the most cancer-causing substances, alongside arsenic and asbestos. Fresh red meat is also due to join the ‘encyclopaedia of carcinogens’ and is likely to be ranked as only slightly less dangerous than the preserved products.”

The headline is harsh, and also breeds serious fear. I’m not going to lie, for a split second I also felt panic. Have I been telling my clients to eat foods that are cancer causing? Eek!!!

Given a few minutes to digest (no pun intended) the new meat headlines, I realized how the way it’s being portrayed requires a bit more explanation. Let me explain why though.

1) Processed meats cause cancer

This is not new news, and it’s been reported before that nitrites and nitrates used to preserve meat are carcinogenic. Does this mean pure bacon purchased at a good quality butcher causes cancer? Not necessarily and this is hugely why I, along with all nutritionists, promote good quality meat.

Hot dogs on the other hand? Is it a tragedy or not obvious that we shouldn’t be eating them? I don’t reeeeeally think so. 🙂 For an eye opening article on hot dog ingredients, click here.

I haven’t really eaten much lunch meat since having to go gluten free 7 years ago, but the fact that there might be gluten in lunch meat tells me there are likely a whole host of other ingredients in there I’d want to stay away from.

2) Red meat ‘probably’ causes cancer

I feel that this statement does not give the whole picture. Yes, conventionally raised (grain fed) beef is inflammatory and depending where you live, can contain hormones too. (For Canadians, the hormone part is not an issue.) Do I recommend you eat regular beef? Not really.

Grass fed beef on the other hand, actually contains anti-carcinogenic nutrients and is high in Vitamin A and C, and is proven to have a much better ratio of fats, being significantly higher in Omega 3s than 6s. This type of red meat has significant health benefits.

For pork, pigs are natural omnivores and don’t just eat grass. However, what’s most important is that they’re in as natural environment as possible, and not exposed to stressors.

3) The nutrients and how you feel

Red meat (beef specifically) is one of the best sources of iron, B12, and zinc, and while we can get these nutrients from plant based sources, they are not as absorbed in our body in comparison to the plant based forms.

One of the fundamentals of Holistic Nutrition is that everyone is different. I know that I personally feel more energetic and better when I’m consuming red meat. Do I eat it every day? Of course not, but when I am not eating it, I feel colder (odd, I know) and a bit more sluggish. (And ladies, loads of hair falling out and one cause of heavy periods is actually iron deficiency!)

4) The Studies

The Gold Standard for studies is randomized controlled trials. The studies used were observational, rather than randomized controlled trials. What this means is many of the studies used people filling in nutrition questionnaires, and then being tracked over a number of years. You can see the link here for one of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer questionnaire, and understand how this leaves a lot of wiggle room for data.

The studies show association with red meat and cancer but not causation. This is one of the major difficulties in running nutrition studies – it’s very difficult to actually isolate almost all other factors to understand if there is causation, especially over a lifetime.

5) Some Perspective

What the main message of this news failed to mention, and was mentioned brilliantly in the Globe and Mail’s and The Independent ‘responses’ was this:

From the Independent:

“The results showed that those who ate the most processed meat had around a 17 per cent higher risk of developing bowel cancer, compared to those who ate the least.  ‘17 per cent’ sounds like a fairly big number – but this is a ‘relative’ risk, so let’s put it into perspective, and convert it to absolute numbers. Remember these are all ball-park figures – everyone’s risk will be different as there are many different factors at play.

We know that, out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).”

From The Globe:

“Worldwide, smoking is associated with about one million cancer deaths annually, and processed meats about 34,000 deaths. Asbestos kills more than 100,000 annually and alcohol causes about 600,000 cancer deaths a year.”

Translation: You might want to also ease off on the booze a bit too. 🙂

6) In summary…

What does this mean for you? Listen to your body for how you feel best (and if you need if, seek a professional’s opinion on what you should be eating – I’m happy to chat with you about this.

I personally feel better eating small amounts of red meat. You on the other hand, might feel better without. If you do eat red meat, pleeeeease eat good quality (100% grass fed). And finally…

I think this situation is a great example of when to use Michael Pollan’s advice: “Eat food, not too much, and mostly vegetables.”

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