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Processed Meats and Cancer Risk

Processed Meats and Cancer Risk

It was hard to miss the headlines about processed meat, red meat and cancer this week. Allison Aaron gives her perspective to help you understand what it all means.

The other day I received a text message from a friend that read, “What are good non-meat forms of protein?” As a dietitian, I often get random questions from friends and family about food and diet-related issues. But this time, that question came on the heels of a much bigger food and diet-related issue. If you have not seen or heard, the World Health Organization (WHO) has now officially classified processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans” and red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Now, there are several questions and points to address before simply taking such a statement at face value. First, how much meat causes cancer? According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), eating 50 grams of processed meat a day increases your chances of getting colorectal cancer by 18% and eating 100 grams of red meat a day increases your chances by 17%. Will you necessarily get cancer? No. But will your relative risk of developing cancer increase? Likely, and obviously we try to decrease that risk as much as possible.

But, as the WHO report also showed, there are other ways to keep our cancer risk at bay – not smoking cigarettes, avoiding sun exposure, and abstaining from alcohol (though I’m curious about whether that one distinguishes wine from other spirits – another blog for another time). The IARC essentially combs through potential environmental causes of cancer in humans be they chemicals (formaldehyde), complex mixtures (air pollution), occupational exposure (work in a hair salon), physical agents (solar radiation), biological agents (hep B), or personal habits (smoking). It is also worth noting that eating a diet high in antioxidant rich fruits and vegetables helps repair some of the damage caused by the cancer causing elements in our lives.

While a report of particular carcinogenic behaviors and agents is definitely noteworthy information to have, a look at the bigger picture is also just as important. For example, a recent study showed that being obese increases your chances of developing colorectal cancer by 3 times – that’s an increased relative risk of 300%! Now, that number is scary – much scarier than 18% or 17%.

The problem with pinpointing behavior without stepping back and looking at the bigger picture is that we seem to be a culture that has a habit of substituting one vice for another. Take the recent comeback of fat. Why did it happen? It happened because back in the day, when studies were touting the benefits of a low-fat diet, we replaced all that fat with refined sugars and carbohydrates. The result? Obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and the list goes on. Just today a headline reads: "A New Study Says Sugar’s Way Worse for Kids Than Pizza and Processed Foods." The study it was referring to had researchers replace all of the added sugar in obese children’s diets with pizza, chips, and other processed foods. Somehow, the lipid, cholesterol, and insulin levels were all improved after the intervention. In  my opinion, who cares? Why are we replacing one evil with the next? Why can’t we simply improve our overall diet?

This brings me back to the original point – yes eating processed meat and red meat may increase our risk for cancer, but if history is any indication, using this information in isolation, Americans will just replace their processed meat and red meat with something else that will keep them just as obese and just as unhealthy. The problem in our country is obesity and the collective unhealthy behaviors that contribute to that: eating processed foods, eating too much food, and eating energy dense foods that are void of nutrients. Above and beyond that we lead sedentary lifestyles that lack physical activity, and so on and so on. Sure, processed and red meats are part of all that, but they are not nearly the whole story.

Now, there is a particular group of individuals who might really benefit from seeing the WHO’s report on processed and red meats, and that is the group of individuals who subscribe to the Paleo and Atkins regimens. The issue with these diets is that they shun any form of complex carbohydrate and allow for exorbitant amounts of meat to make up for it. While the Paleo and Atkins devotees might be shedding the weight, perhaps they are doing damage inside, and the WHO report has the information to prove it.

I guess the takeaway message of all this is three-fold. First, while processed and red meats may be part of the problem, let us not lose sight of other factors that influence our health (like obesity). Secondly, while diets that completely exclude food groups might be easy to follow, they almost always lead to deficiencies and excess. The WHO report confirms that achieving a healthy weight by loading up on red meat is not a way to achieve an overall healthy life. Finally, as cliché as this sounds, balance is key, and red meat can have a place, be it a small one, in a healthy diet full of minimally processed fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains and, unless you’re vegan or vegetarian, some lean animal protein.


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