Is Red Meat Going to Give You Cancer?

The latest health scare that we have been fed from social media and news headlines, that processed and red meats and your risk of cancer may have blown out of proportion the threat to your health. Here are the missing facts from the captivating headlines.

One of the latest headlines that swept across the globe, suggested that eating processed meats has the same health risks as smoking and drinking. Another claimed that eating bacon will give you cancer. With such bold claims like these, it was hard to miss the reports on your Facebook news feed and your traditional news programs and papers that came down in late October. Eating processed and red meat was linked to several different cancers.

Now although these findings may have come as a bit of a shock, this wasn’t the first time that studies have shown a strong link between meat consumption and cancer. In fact, numerous researchers have been analysing the link between meat and cancer for the past 20 years, and the findings have been fairly consistent: Higher intakes of meat, especially red meat and processed meat, are associated with an increased risk of cancers, especially bowel cancers.

But interpreting scientific research properly and thoroughly takes more time than most news reporters and journalists lead on, so in today’s blog we are going to take a closer look at the recent research and what it’s real conclusion is.

STUDYING THE STUDY

October 2015, 22 scientists from all around the world evaluated the risk of cancer from eating red and processed meat. The group assessed over 800 different studies investigating the association of cancer risk with consumption of these kinds of meats, and concluded that diets high in processed meat were positively associated with bowel cancer. As well as this, consumption of red meat was linked to cancers of the pancreas and prostate. Sounds conclusive doesn’t mate.

The report sparked headlines like, “Eating Processed Meat Is Just as Bad as Smoking and Asbestos.” (This was an actual headline.) But how can indulging in a juicy sausage sizzle cause the same detrimental health effects as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, you ask?

The report placed processed meats—which includes meats that have been transformed through smoking, fermentation, or other processes to enhance their flavour and/or improve preservation—into the Group 1 category, “carcinogenic to humans,” suggesting there was sufficient evidence that they could cause cancer. Other substances that have received the same rating as Group 1 include alcohol, asbestos, and tobacco smoke.

However, just because processed meats and tobacco smoke fall into the same category, does absolutely NOT mean they are equally hazardous to your health. For example, smoking causes a 2000% increase in a person’s risk of developing lung and other forms of cancer. In comparison, eating processed meat increases a person’s risk of bowel cancer by a factor of about 1.1-1.2% for each serving consumed per day.

Now red meat, on the other hand, was placed into a category as “probably carcinogenic” because of the limited evidence available. However, the group of scientists did conclude that diets high in red meat were linked to pancreatic and prostate cancer. This is good to know, however let’s take a closer look at how they collected the data.

 

THE MEAT OF THE ARGUMENT

Most of the evidence linking meat consumption to cancer comes from cohort studies. Cohort studies are commonly used in medicine to analyse certain risk factors in a group of people. Now although they can provide a great deal of information, data on the potential other factors is often left out. Things like diet, physical activity levels, and overall lifestyle all tend to be excluded from the results, which means that interpreting the data can give very unclear and even misleading results.

On the other hand, we know that smoking causes a 90% of lung-cancer deaths among men and women. Smoking also causes more deaths each year than HIV, illegal drugs, alcohol abuse, motor-vehicle accidents, and murder incidents combined. There is also clear evidence that excessive drinking can cause heart and liver failure, cancer, as well as a weakened immune system.

Take Away Point: The risk for cancer is far greater from smoking than it is from eating meat. Smoking and drinking pose far greater health risks than meat. Throwing away the cigarettes and monitoring your alcohol intake are so much more beneficial than giving up red or processed meat.

So, even though processed meat and tobacco are in the same category, they aren’t the same. That’s good news! But then I read this headline: “Less Than 2 Slices Of Bacon A Day Can Increase Your Risk Of Bowel Cancer”

How an earth could enjoying a couple slices of bacon alongside your morning eggs and avocado really increase your risk of getting bowel cancer by 18%? According to the most recent findings, yes it can. But before you throw out all your delicious bacon, let’s consider a few of the other statistics.

Regardless of what type of diet you follow (e.g., carnivorous, vegetarian, or vegan), your lifetime risk for developing bowel cancer is about 5%.

Let’s say you were to eat deli meat, a hot dog, or some other form of processed meat every day for the rest of your life. Your risk for colon cancer would increase to about 6-7 %, which is, mathematically speaking, an 18% increase. So although your risk does increase, it’s in fact a extremely small increase.

Take Away Points: Factors such as a sedentary or inactive lifestyle, obesity, alcohol, and tobacco all increase your risk of cancer far more than red or processed meats do. make sure you eliminate all of those before you out your morning couple of slices of bacon.

THE MEATY BITS

However, even though we’ve established that the risk bowel cancer from red and processed meat is nothing to worry about, our beautiful meat isn’t quite out of trouble! One more headline that made its way across the Internet was “Diets High in Red Meat are Linked to Prostate Cancer”. Now this is something that is worth reading into.

It’s not the first time that red meat, a staple in most bodybuilding/healthy diets, has gotten a bad rap. First of all, the saturated fat found in fattier cuts of meat was linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and now we’re being told that cooking red meat can actually increase the chances of getting pancreatic and prostate cancer. The studies report it’s due to the production of carcinogens (cancer-causing agents).

If you look at the latest report, the scientists placed red meat in the category of “probably carcinogenic,” suggesting that it may increase your chance of getting cancer, but at this point in time there’s not enough evidence to link the two. So if there’s not enough results to show that red meat causes cancer, then how can they now say that it causes pancreatic and prostate cancer?  Two words: mechanistic evidence.

Mechanistic analyses examine changes in one variable that could lead to a change in other variables. Research suggests that it may not necessarily be consumption of red meat that increases your risk for cancer, but rather how you cook it.

Important to Note

Cooking improves the digestibility and palatability of meat, but grilling up your favourite cut of steak or frying up some juicy home made burgers can significantly increase the formation of carcinogenic chemicals in your meat.

Meat heated at a high temperature contains heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA), an agent that can damage genetic information within a cell, causing mutations which can possibly lead to cancer. Additionally, meat smoked or cooked over a heated surface or open flame contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). Similar to HAA, these chemicals can cause DNA damage and may increase your risk of cancer.

HOW TO PREVENT YOUR RISK OF CANCER

Although all of this might be a bit frightening. Just remember that with all of this being said, there is still very little evidence that actually shows consuming cooked meats will cause genetic mutations or DNA damage. However, there are some things you can do the lower your risk of pancreatic and prostate cancer:

  • Don’t burn your meat! Cook with lower cooking temperatures, and try not to cook over an open flame. The oven, hot plate, a George Foreman grill, or the stove top over low to medium heat are your best options.
  • Monitor your red-meat intake, and limit it to a max of three 120g servings per day. Studies demonstrating DNA damage following high meat consumption were using 500g of red meat per day. Stick with smaller serving sizes.
  • Don’t forget about the health benefits of red meat. Calorie for calorie, beef is one of the most nutrient rich-foods. Red meat is a great source of protein, and is also high in iron, vitamin B-12, and zinc, which helps to keep your immune system working properly.

Take Away: You can have your meat and eat it too—just use moderation!

THE TAKE AWAY

Everything in moderation.

Consuming large amounts of red and processed meat can increase your risk for bowel cancer, just as consuming large quantities of fat and sugar can increase your risk of becoming obese, developing type 2 diabetes, and getting cancer.

Consuming too much of anything can be bad. In the big scheme of things, eating a couple of slices of bacon for breakfast or enjoying a sausage at a Christmas BBQ won’t do anything to harm to your health. But if you are still concerned about your cancer risk, enjoy your meats in moderation, follow a balanced diet, work out regularly, DON’T SMOKE, and only drink in moderation.

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