A common-sense look at the frenzy surrounding the World Health Organization’s findings about red and processed meat and cancer risks.
Every year, my husband and I purchase a quarter of a grass-fed steer from a small local farm. Will I change my mind in light of the recent announcement by the cancer- research division of the World Health Organization (WHO) that eating red meat and processed meat increases the risk of developing colorectal cancer?
In a word, no.
I was underwhelmed by the announcement and amused by the media brouhaha that ensued. Why? Because the content of the announcement wasn’t actually news. It was simply a reaffirmation of a large body of scientific research. The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has recommended for years, based on the evidence, that we limit red meat (beef, pork, lamb) to 18 ounces per week, and avoid processed meats (bacon, ham, salami, hot dogs, sausage). My quarter-steer works out to less than 14 ounces per person per week, or 2 ounces per day.
The WHO report suggests that each two ounces of red meat per day might increase the risk of colon cancer by 17 percent. An average woman of my age has a 1 in 263 chance of developing colon cancer in the next 10 years. Two ounces per day could shift that to 1 in 227. The risk from processed meat is a shade higher, at 18 percent per two ounces.
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For the report, a group of 22 scientists from 10 countries looked at more than 800 studies from around the world that investigated the association between cancer and red or processed meat. The group gave the most credence to high-quality studies that considered red meat and processed meat separately. Now, association between two things does not prove cause and effect, but despite what some critics are saying, this is not weak science.
There was sufficient evidence that processed meat can cause colorectal cancer to classify it as “carcinogenic to humans.” Red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” because there is evidence, but it is more limited. Processed meat has a stronger link to cancer because many of the processing methods, including smoking, curing, salting and use of preservatives, may themselves be carcinogenic.
Many factors contribute to cancer risk, including genetics, age, gender, smoking status, physical activity and what we eat — or don’t eat. Some foods may increase your risk, while others may decrease it. Here are a few tips for having your red meat and preventing cancer, too:
Rethink your plate
When you make meat the center of the plate, it can easily displace the plant foods — especially vegetables — that contain cancer-preventing phytonutrients. Enjoy your meat in smaller portions in dishes like stir-fries (with lots of veggies) or chilis with beans and veggies. Or simply make a point to fill at least half your plate with veggies.
Consider your cooking methods
Dry, high-heat cooking methods like grilling, roasting and pan-frying produce compounds that are suspected of being carcinogenic, especially when the meat is cooked well done. Low, slow, moist cooking methods are the healthiest ways to cook meat, but when the barbecue beckons, choose lean cuts and marinate them first.
Embrace Meatless Monday
Reducing portion size is one way to eat a little less meat, eating meat less often is another. It’s also a great way to fit in more cancer-fighting plant foods.
I eat beef because I enjoy it, it’s nutritious, and I have a great local source. But I enjoy a lot of other foods that provide similar nutrition. If my farmers ever call it quits, I’ll be eating a lot more lentils.