By: Nikki Nies
Doesn’t every story always have two sides? The good news? The latest craze that bacon causes cancer is a bit of frenzy. The bad news for bacon lovers, this isn’t ‘new’ news, the American Institute for Cancer Research has declared the link between bacon and cancer for a while, yet the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) report on the link between red meats, processed meats and colorectal cancer has brought the spotlight back on to this topic. Before vegetarians get on their soap box, bacon lovers declaring they can’t eat meat ever again or disregard this report by wanting to continue to eat how much whenever, what if I told you there is a middle ground?
Yes, you can have a few pieces of processed meats once in a while is not going to be a death sentence, but understanding what types of meats may contribute to cancer and why will help all wrap their heads around the concept.
“No one food causes cancer,” said Audrey Monroe a Dietitian and Director of Nutrition for the Kansas Beef Council.
Processed meats include those that have been cured, salted, smoked or a preservation method has been used (e.g. cold cuts, bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, pastrami, salami and pepperoni). To put the new classification in perspective, like outdoor pollution, UV radiation, alcohol, tobacco and cigarettes, the IARC ranked processed meats as a class 1 carcinogen. The physical method of grinding or mincing of meat does not automatically make it ‘processed.’ Red meats include beef, lamb and pork, with it being ranked as class 2A campaign. Yet, liver is clumped in the ‘red meat’ category, providing all necessary vitamins and minerals.
The mechanism of why and how these meats increase colorectal cancer is not definitive. There is speculation that increased risk is due to the addition of nitrates, nitrites, heme iron in red meat, smoking process and/or high temperatures.
Suggestions on how to lower consumption and cancer risk:
- Replace processed and red meats with fresh chicken, fish and plant based proteins (e.g. eggs, cottage cheese, hummus, beans, tofu and legumes)
- Swap out bacon, chorizo and salami with spicy vegetarian sausage
- Opt for lean beef and loin cuts as quality protein helps one feel satiated and fuller longer to help maintain desired weight
- Redirect focus on how meals can provide a balance of nutrients, including whole grains, fiber, lean meats and low fat dairy products
- Vary the type of produce used as different vegetables provide anti cancer, antioxidant properties. The phytochemicals in vegetables work synergistically together to stave off cancer.
In addition to being mindful of the ranking, it’s important to note the amount of exposure to the carcinogen. Yes, cigarettes and processed meats have been both classified as class 1 carcinogens, but many smokers expose their bodies to tobacco multifold a day, while the same measurement can not be used when assessing processed meat’s impact on someone—instead we need to consider how big the portions and frequency of intake.
If you’re as legalistic as I am, what’s a ‘moderate’ amount of processed meats? 500,000 middle aged men and women were studied, finding that consumption of 50 g of processed meat increased risk of colon cancer up to 18%. In other words, the recommendation is to consume 70 g of less of red and processed meats. Limiting consumption of red meat to once a week/18 ounces (cooked) or less per week, one should not be concerned with an increased cancer risk. In other words, 18 ounces is ~4-quarter pounders hamburgers per week. If you’re eating hot dogs three to four times a week, perhaps, cutting back to once a week is a step you would be willing to take.
As you can see, nutrition is not black and white. While these IARC declarations has sparked debate, it doesn’t mean processed meats and red meat have to be cut out completely. With regular meal planning and mindfulness, all foods can fit. The USDA and FDA are set to share new dietary guidelines by the end of this year, so it will be interesting how and if the WHO reports affect those guidelines.