What you really need to know about eating red meat
October 28, 2015
This week the World Health Organisation announced that consuming red meat is “probably carcinogenic to humans, based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans” and that consuming processed meat is “carcinogenic to humans, based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.”
Blimey. Talk about headline-grabbing.
But is that all it is?
From the headline “carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat”, we’re already down to colorectal (bowel) cancer and “probably”. You may think I'm just being a cynic, however what you won't be told is how valuable the data collected really is. There are different ways of conducting research studies and collecting data and there are even more ways of interpreting that data. None of these studies has tested the consumption of red or processed meat as an isolated intervention (ie that is the only difference between the control group and the intervention group). But they have measured what conditions the individuals later develop.
These studies don't tell us about the overall diet of these individuals or even the control groups. It's quite possible that those who are eating more red meat or more processed meat are also eating more processed food in general. I don't eat red meat every day and try to limit it - partly because I love vegetables and can cook tasty veggie food and partly because I try to be careful about what I eat. Therefore this also means I barely ever buy ready-prepared food and try to get nutrients from all the food groups in my diet. This may of course make me healthier and less likely to develop colorectal cancer than a person who consumes a lot of processed meat and other processed food. Because I eat less red meat, I eat more vegetables - which are thought to help bowel movements and prevent diseases of the bowel. Eating more processed (not necessarily red) meat may reveal a less healthy lifestyle in general. Chances are that the processed white bread and ketchup you eat with that burger are as much to blame.
The WHO report describes processed meat as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation.” There is a massive difference between 'other processes' and the traditional curing methods, which we seem to have managed with for a few million years without this modern disease we now fear. Perhaps cancer was less identified but existed moneyless but there's no doubt that it's a modern disease in that the number of cases per hundred persons has increased rapidly over the last decades. I think that this undoubtedly has a lot to do with our environment and our diet but salting, curing, fermentation and smoking have been used for a lot longer than a few decades in order to preserve meat. Preserving was essential to enable us to acces the nutrients found in meat - which we need to live (essential fats, complete protein, vitamins and minerals). It's almost as if nature is telling us meat might be useful for us!
So let's not try to confused these methods with processing that involves poor quality meat (animals fed on fake food and pumped full of chemicals) and artificial processing methods which involve more chemicals. They may observe a pattern between people who consume processed meat and people who go on to develop bowel cancer.
What is your risk?
Well, bowel cancer tends to affect those over 50. In fact, 95% of bowel cancer cases occur in people aged 50 and over. 41,581 people (65 per 100,000) people were diagnosed with bowel cancer in 2011. In comparison, 50,285 were diagnosed with breast cancer in the same year. And yet there are few known causes of breast cancer.
Cancer Research UK has the statistics should you wish to inform yourself. http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/statistics-by-cancer-type/bowel-cancer#heading-Zero
What to do?
Well, the Lancet does thankfully remind us that red meat 'contains high biological value proteins and important micronutrients such as B vitamins, iron (both free iron and haem iron), and zinc.” Plus essential fats, vitamins and minerals.
My advice is to try to limit your red meat intake to twice or three times a week. Eat lots of vegetables and eggs. Add pulses and grains to your diet. And avoid any processed food - of any kind. If you want salami and chorizo, go to your local butcher and check ingredients labels.