When we think about what can contribute to giving us cancer, the first things that probably come to mind are:
- Exposure to chemicals like asbestos
- Too much time in the sun
Typically we don’t consider specific items in our diet. That’s why I was so interested to learn that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified red meat as probably carcinogenic, and classified processed meat as definitely carcinogenic. It was a bit of a bummer to hear that some of the foods we love, like bacon and beef, could contribute to our risk for cancer but just one more reason to avoid processed foods.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer(IARC), the cancer agency for the WHO, had a team of 22 researchers review over 800 studies to reach their conclusion: Eating 50 grams of processed meat per day raised a person’s risk for colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
Fifty grams of processed meat is equivalent to a single hot dog, a sandwich of lunch meat or four strips of bacon. Now 18 percent isn’t overwhelming but if you know anyone with colorectal cancer that would be enough to get your attention. And as we know processed foods are often lower in nutritional value and quality so we should avoid them anyway.
Even though red meat was only categorized as probably carcinogenic, I didn’t find the “probably” categorization comforting. After all, I wouldn’t drive a car that was probably unsafe. So, should we continue to eat red meat and processed meat at all? The research isn’t so stark that you need to stop completely, but you should moderate and replace with less risky meats, like poultry and fish.
Since processed foods are a greater and more conclusive cancer risk than fresh red meat, it is advisable to minimize foods like smoked sausages, lunch meats or cured bacon. You can, however, find uncured or fresh versions of most of these foods. Make sure to read labels and look for labels that say nitrate free when buying any type of bacon, sausage, deli meat etc.
For meat lovers, begin to consider higher-end organic, grass-fed or cruelty-free meats. Although it is more expensive and you might be eating meat less often, the improvement in quality and flavor can surely make up for it. Consuming something less often allows you to enjoy and savor it more.
Before making radical changes to your diet and lifestyle, you should know that the cancer risk for eating red and processed meat isn’t nearly as significant as some other lifestyle carcinogens, like tobacco use. The American Cancer Society recommends:
- Maintaining a healthy weight because obesity causes a significant amount of cancer
- Refraining from using tobacco
- Regular exercice
- Keeping alcohol use moderate
So, go ahead, enjoy a little red meat. As long as you keep the rest of your lifestyle in balance, keep your meat consumption moderate and get the high quality unprocessed meats.
There’s little reason for you to worry about a great steak or hamburger every now and then. Or pork loin. Or rib roast. Just go for quality over quantity.
Now I’m getting hungry.
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