Should Bacon Really be Eliminated from Your Diet?
A recent report that has tied cancer to red meat and processed meats has left consumers and ranchers in an uproar, but health experts say all is not lost for meat lovers
A recent report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) linking processed and red meats to cancer has caused a considerable uproar against meat consumption. While these findings are significant, some health experts say that we should not be so quick to panic and abandon meat all together. This isn’t the first time we’ve been warned about the link between meat consumption and an increased risk of cancer, plus a variety of other health issues. These new findings by the WHO, from data collected over the last twenty years, has received some criticism due to the methods used to draw these conclusions.
A report in the Washington Post discusses how experiments to accurately measure whether processed and red meat consumption causes cancer is quite tedious and time consuming: “they require controlling the diets of thousands of test subjects over a course of many years. For example, one group would be assigned to eat lots of meat, and another less, or none”. These types of experiments are rarely done due to cost, time, and a variety of other reasons, therefore scientists use methods like epidemiology or observational studies to make conclusions.
In this case, the epidemiological study shows a strong connection between red and processed meats and our health. Research has shown that the risk of colon cancer increases up to 18% with each 50 grams (1.8 ounces) of processed meat eaten daily, and increases by around 17% with each 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of red meat consumed. So, what are the properties that make these meats carcinogenic? According to the IARC, some meats contain carcinogenic chemicals that form due to processing or cooking. N-Nitroso compounds and polycyclic hydrocarbons are two examples of carcinogenic compounds that develop during meat processing. Cooking red or processed meat can also produce heterocyclic amines and polycyclic hydrocarbons, which are found in air pollution. While these chemicals are known or potential carcinogens, the IARC is still not fully clear (on a scientific level) how cancer risk increases with red and processed meat consumption.
What has been observed, is that the risk of cancer increases as the amount of meat consumed increases. However, health experts also note that meat has a nutritional value and delivers essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and protein to the body. Thus, government and health agencies should conduct further assessments to present the best possible recommendation for consuming these meats.
With these risks and factors in mind, people should strive to consume “less and better meat”. Health expert and physician David Wallinga from the University of Minnesota states that currently, American’s eat on average 1.9lbs of red meat per week. This amount is almost double the recommended 1.1lbs (500 grams) per week suggested by the European Union. Cutting down our meat consumption can therefore significantly impact our health. Two registered dietician-nutritionists recommend cutting down red meat consumption to two-four servings a month, and encourage consumers to choose grass fed beef. They both recommend staying away from processed meat all together, due to the additives & preservatives such as nitrates and sodium.
So, meat-lovers who fear they will never be able to enjoy a hamburger or filet mignon again can rest easy. If you don’t think you can give up red meat completely, just be very mindful of how much you consume. Limit your consumption, substitute poultry, fish, or vegetables into meals that you normally would eat with red or processed meats, and/or strive to eat vegetarian when you can (check out how to eat a nutritious vegetarian/vegan diet here).