It’s not a surprise to most of us in the health world–processed meat is not healthy for you. Cancer agencies and other health agencies have long been telling the public to limit consumption of processed and red meats. But to hear the World Health Organization (WHO) label it a Group 1 carcinogenic this week is a bit of a big deal. The meat industry is a huge one with lots of money and lots of power and input. And they are not happy with processed meat cancer Group 1 labelling.
WHO links processed meat to cancer
(CNN) The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report Monday which placed processed meats, including bacon and sausages, in the same category as smoking and asbestos for causing cancer. Processed meat causes cancer, says WHO.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is the cancer agency for the WHO. With a working group of 22 experts from 10 countries, they looked carefully at the accumulated research (more than 800 studies!) on the effects of processed meats and red meats on cancer.
Processed Meat Cancer Risk
What the IARC concluded was that there is sufficient evidence that processed meat is carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), particularly for colorectal cancer. So, why is it such a risk? The curing and salting of meat is what creates cancer-causing chemicals such as polycylcic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Processed meats include:
- bacon (the kick-back from people on this one is huge–I’ve personally never understood the bacon-love thing)
- hot dogs
- sliced meat
- corned beef
- beef jerky
- canned meat
- meat-based preparations and sauces
For each 50g portion of processed meat daily, your risk for colorectal cancer increases by 18%. To put that into perspective, 50g is about 2 slices of bacon, and Group 1 carcinogenic is the same category as tobacco and asbestos.
However, experts also note that the processed meat cancer risk is not nearly as high as that of smoking. About 6-7% of Canadians will develop colorectal cancer, according the the Canadian Cancer Society. So, with a daily 50g serving of bacon, a 7% risk rises to 8.26% (this is an 18% increase from a person’s baseline risk). By comparison, smoking increases your risk of lung cancer by 2500%! And, of course–as the meat industry is keen to point out–cancer is a complex disease with more than one cause.
But still, the processed meat cancer risk is important to consider.
The Global Burden of Disease Project suggested that 34,000 global cancer deaths each year are connected to diets rich in processed meat, according to the IARC.
Red Meat Cancer Risk
Red meat was also investigated and was found to fit the category of probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A), mostly colorectal cancer, but also possible connections to pancreatic and prostate cancer.
Considering that the average American ate 71.2 lbs of red meat in 2012 (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture), there is a lot of money that the meat industry does not want to lose. So, they are already on the attack, with the North American Meat Institute stating that the recent report is “dramatic and alarmist overreach.”
My favourite quote, however, is from Bonnie Liebman, the nutrition director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The meat industry, which is attacking the IARC, has less credibility than the Flat Earth Society. IARC is the gold standard for rigor, comprehensiveness, and reasonableness — all qualities in short supply in the meat industry and its friends in Congress.”
Should you be scared?
For many of you, no, I don’t think so, and neither do many health experts. But, if you have a higher cancer risk already, if you suffer from other diseases, if you eat lots of red meat and processed meats…then yes, time to make a change. General health recommendations are for 3 or fewer servings of red meat per week, and rare inclusion of processed meats.
Before this report came out, my husband and I had already decided to do “No Meat November” because of animal and environmental reasons. “Meatless May” was a great success for us, as we got to try so many delicious foods. We already don’t eat pig and rarely eat processed meats or red meat, so this report changes nothing for my habits.
Traditional Chinese Medicine does not recommend everyone stop eating all meat. However, traditionally, meat was consumed more like a condiment, not the main dish. It was also all wild, organic, and eating its natural foods (not “feed” and drugs) prior to landing on our dinner plates.
Of course, each of us has individual health needs, so what do you think about what you’ve read, and will it change anything for your food choices?
The Vancouver Sun recently wrote an article titled, “Chinese herbs mixed with medications can be hazardous.” Now, the article doesn’t really say that Chinese herbs themselves are dangerous. It discusses how patients (particularly those from China) often take Chinese herbs, but don’t tell their medical doctors about it. And the onus of blame for health risks from drug-herb interactions always lands on the herbs, not the pharmaceuticals.
Chinese herbs mixed with medications can be hazardous
Using traditional Chinese herbal remedies while also taking prescription medications can cause potentially life-threatening reactions. After a survey of Chinese immigrants in Vancouver found that many use traditional herbs and fail to disclose it to …
The Good Side of Awareness for Drug-Herb Interactions
A group of medical students is working with an emergency medical doctor at Vancouver General Hospital to provide a checklist of common Chinese herbs with a listing of the herbs’ actions. The intent is to provide the list to TCM practitioners, TCM herbalists, and TCM doctors to have them check the box next to any of the herbs they prescribe to each of their patients. The idea is that the patient would then provide this checklist to their MD.
I do agree that dangerous drug-herb interactions need to be avoided.
I do agree that it’s important that patients notify their MDs about any herbs or supplements they are taking. And that they also tell their TCM health professional (and any other health providers) about medications they are taking.
I do agree that Chinese herbs can have powerful medicinal effects. This actually is refreshing to me to hear medical students and a VGH ER doc note the potent physiological actions of Chinese herbs. TCM offers effective medicinal results, and too often the conventional side questions the efficacy. This group of conventional health providers do not question that there are medicinal effects. Bravo!
Should We Be Concerned About Dangerous Chinese Herbs?
But, is it really the Chinese herbs themselves that are the problem?
How herbs are being taken
Part of the problem is it that patients may take herbs improperly, taking the health advice of a friend or family member (or Dr. Google), rather than seek the help of a qualified TCM doctor or herbalist.
As a registered doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I know that when we prescribe Chinese herbs, the herbs are almost never prescribed as a single herb. We gather a lot of information from our patients about their health conditions, their medications (we too learn about drug-herb interactions), their other supplements, and a long list of symptoms, life patterns, and medical history. We do this so that we can work to avoid side effects and negative interactions.
British Columbians are lucky. TCM is a regulated profession. TCM herbs are prescribed by health professionals who are registered, licensed, and insured. We are held accountable, just like MDs, nurses, physios, and other health professionals under the Health Professions Act. So, make sure the person who tells you to take your Chinese herbs is actually qualified to do so. Note that if you want Chinese herbs, check our regulatory body’s website and choose only those with Dr.TCM, R.TCM.P., or R.TCM.H. Registered acupuncturists (R.Ac.) are not qualified to prescribe Chinese herbs.
What about the pharmaceuticals?
How about the pharmaceutical medications themselves? Do they hold some responsibility, or is it a dysfunctional blaming relationship? “It’s not me, it’s you.”
For example, the blood thinning drug warfarin (that they mention in the Vancouver Sun article) does not play well with others. Many others. Including A.S.A. (e.g. Aspirin), ibuprofen (e.g. Advil), and acetominophen (e.g. Tylenol); thyroid medicine, some antibiotics, and some antidepressants; and even many foods, like grapefruit, avocado, large amounts of kale or other otherwise healthy dark leafy greens, and store-bought mayo, salad dressings, and margarine.
I’m not against the proper use of pharmaceutical medicine. I work in an integrative medicine clinic with MDs and an ND who prescribe them. My mother is a nurse practitioner. I will take an Advil or Tylenol if I am suffering pain and need quick relief. But, too many people are too over-medicated because it’s easy to do. Because MSP or extended health plans pay for the medications, but not our herbs, vitamins, and other supplements. Because of scary articles like this one in the Vancouver Sun.
Why aren’t patients telling their MDs about their herb use?
Then, of course, there’s the big question…why aren’t patients telling their MDs about the herbs, vitamins, and other supplements they are taking? This article provides an answer, “A survey her group conducted of more than 300 Chinese immigrants to Vancouver revealed many don’t disclose their use of such remedies because they feel they’ll be harshly judged.”
That is a problem!
And it’s not just Chinese immigrants who feel that way. Many patients have told me that they take supplements or get treatments (like acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, and more) despite the flak they take from their MDs. Some have learned to just shut it when it comes to that discussion. Easier not to have to argue. Or justify. Or try to explain how it’s actually working for them.
So, will my taking the time to print, fill out, and hand that checklist to each patient who receives Chinese herbs from me help?
Maybe a bit. Maybe it will open up some much needed dialogue between health professions so we can work better together. *I’m lucky because I work in an integrative medical clinic alongside MDs who are open-minded and who practice functional medicine–which really actually uses TCM foundational principles.
But, if only 1% of the herbal formula I make for someone is licorice root, will the MD still have them stop their herbs if they are taking warfarin?
And, above all, if patients feel they can’t discuss their health choices with their MDs, will they even hand that list to their MD?
There are so many things for which I am grateful. Many are things over which I have little to no control–wonderful family, growing up in comfort, opportunities for education, foundational good health, etc. Some are things that I’ve created for myself through choices I make every day.
This latter group of things I’m grateful for includes health and wellness. And it takes effort. This is a short list of some of the things I do for my health.
Exercise regularly. Eat healthy food. Strive to be mindful and practice gratitude to manage life’s stresses. Learn about health and its many varied aspects and approaches. Trial and error different things to see how/if they work for me.
Sometimes people tell me that these things are too hard to do. That they cost too much. That they take too much time. That they take the fun out of life.
But they needn’t be any of these things. Let’s talk about it in reference to food.
Making Eating Healthy Food Easier and Tastier
I get it. Unhealthy food is often convenient. It’s everywhere. It’s served in large portions. It’s made to tempt. It’s even sometimes made to look like it’s healthy.
Size. Fake healthy. Really? Why is there a super-sized can of nacho “cheese” sauce? And they label it 0 trans fat. As if that makes it healthy.
Temptation. I’ve seen all kinds of food with Star Wars on the container. Cereal, KD, granola bars, flavoured creamers, soups, and so forth. They make the food you see regularly seem somehow special.
Just…what?! This does not look tempting to me. This looks inedible. It was part of a Halloween themed scary meal option, and scare it does. But it was also intended to be consumed, and people do buy it.
So, what can you do to make healthy food choices?
- Avoid the aisles when you shop the grocery store. Really. Most of the bad, the worse, and the ugly is found in the supermarket aisles. Skip the chip, pop, and cookie aisle altogether. Be focused if you want to enter the cereal aisle–I know it’s easy to get distracted in that sugar-filled, colourful box, faking healthy aisle. Just get the rolled oats or steel cut oats, for a healthy breakfast option. There are some decent cereal options, but read the labels. That leads me to point two…
- Read labels. Is it mostly foods you can identify? If not, then skip it.
- Choose mostly foods that don’t need labels.
- Be prepared. Have some simple recipes and meal plans organized. Some of my go-to easy prep foods for fall and winter include roasted veggies (so easy to chop up root veggies–they also keep well) with canned legumes, slow cooked stew, baked salmon with steamed veggies and rice.
- Understand that it gets easier. Your taste buds will start to pick up subtle sweet, lightly salty, and other tempting food flavours that they can’t taste when they are bombarded by the heavy stuff.
Alternative Options for Healthy Food Picks
Sweet tooth? Instead of cookies, cakes, candies, fruit juice, and table sugar, choose dates, figs, sweet potatoes, yams, roasted vegetables (cooking them makes them taste sweeter), and berries. Choose good quality, organic dark chocolate if you are a chocoholic. Savour a small square or two instead of the whole thing. Watch for hidden sugar in sauces and supposedly healthy snacks like granola bars. Include protein, good fats, and fibre to your sweet foods in order to help stabilize your blood sugar. For example, cut open a date, remove the pit, put some hummus in it, and add an almond. Sweet, savory, soft, and crunchy. Easy and yummy!
Swoon for salty? Instead of chips, salty canned soups, and frozen dinners, make your own yam fries with a little pinch of sea salt, kale chips, baked chips (portion out a serving size and put the bag away), and low sodium soups. Taste your food before you add salt. You may not need to add as much as you think. Add crumpled bits of seaweed (nori, dulse, kombu) to your soup or stew. You’ll get the salty taste while adding beneficial minerals and other nutrients.
Flavour with spices–there are many to choose from.
Keep some frozen vegetables available for easy steaming or stirfry. Nut butter spread on a piece of fruit, avocado, smoothies, a handful of nuts and/or seeds, or a boiled egg are healthy foods you can keep on hand.
What are your fave quick, easy, and tasty healthy food choices?
I asked, “What do you want me to write about?” And I received a request for acupressure points to massage for general body tune up/massage for the fall season. Great question! I thought I’d expand on that and offer my top health tips for fall this season.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we consider 5, not 4, seasons through the year–spring, summer, late summer, fall, and winter. Each season relates to a different set of organ systems and their associated health issues. Autumn relates to the TCM Lungs* and Large Intestines*. (*I capitalize these because TCM considers more than just the physical organs themselves.)
Problems with these systems can result in:
- Frequent colds and flu
- Infections and weakened immune system
- Allergies and other auto-immune disorders
- Skin problems like eczema, psoriasis, rashes, sensitivity
- Asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other lung health issues
- Constipation, diarrhea, irregularities with bowel movements
- Depression, sadness, and lingering grief
- Challenges with letting go or problems with commitment
Even if you don’t suffer from any of these particular wellness challenges, it’s a good idea to keep your body strong and optimally healthy by supporting the systems most active for each season. Start with these health tips for fall, and remember to let me know your favourite wellness habits as well.
Top 5 Health Tips for Fall Season
- Breathe. Yes, of course you’re already breathing. But take the time to stop, notice your breath, then take a few minutes to deepen and slow that breath down. Breathe in to the bottom of your lungs, expanding your whole ribcage–front, back, and sides. Pause for just a moment. Then release your whole breath out, emptying your lungs. Pause again and start over with another deep inhale. Make sure you don’t make yourself dizzy, but try this for 5-10 breaths. Each time you breathe in, visualize the oxygen nourishing your whole body, supplying your cells with vital energy. Each time you breathe out, feel the release of letting go of what you do not need or want.
- Wear a scarf. Or turn up your collar or wear a turtleneck shirt. I consider scarves as health accessories, not just fashion accessories. Keeping your neck and shoulders warm and covered helps avoid a lowering of your immune system’s ability to ward off attack. It also helps prevent your muscles from tightening up as you start to pull your shoulders up toward your ears to guard against the cold air.
- Get outside to connect with nature, even though the weather turns colder in the fall. Get close to some trees and practice the first health tip for fall. If you can’t get outside, use indoor plants to help. Peace lilies, rubber plants, spider plants, and snake plants, in particular, help clean and filtre your air by absorbing airborne bacteria, mould spores, and cancer-causing contaminants like formaldehyde.
- Consider your food choices. As the weather cools, soups, stews, slow cooked meals, roasted and steamed vegetables, and hot oatmeal are better options than salads, raw foods, and cold smoothies. Those latter foods are still healthy, but check in with your body and chances are you’ll find a balance tipping toward warmer foods may feel more suitable. Include fall harvest root veggies like sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkin, carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabaga, and beets. Support your immune system with garlic, onions, thyme, oregano, mushrooms, and hot tea. And boost up your network of good bacteria in your gut by eating fermented foods like yogurt, miso, tempeh, and sauerkraut, and choose a high quality probiotic supplement.
- Try acupressure. Back to how this all started. Massaging or pressing on the following points can help support the immune system, one of the key aspects of the Lung system, and timely for the start of the cold and flu season. Press each point for 30 seconds. Some points can be done both sides at the same time.
Lung 7: Find this point by starting with giving a “thumbs up” sign with one hand. You’ll see a pocket form (called the “anatomical snuff box” because people used to put powdered tobacco–or snuff–in here to sniff it out) at the base of your thumb. Use your other hand to measure 2 finger-widths up your arm from the pocket.
Large Intestine 11: With your elbow bent at 90 degrees, find a tender point just lateral (thumb side) to the end of your elbow crease.
Stomach 36: This point has been called the vitamin C point of the body because of its many health benefits. In addition to supporting digestive health and improving energy, it can also support immune health. With your knee bent at 90 degrees, find a depression below and lateral (pinky toe side) to your kneecap. The point is found one hand-width below that, just lateral to the shin bone (tibia). It will likely be tender.
Lung 1: This point is found about 3 finger-widths below the collarbone, just in front of the arm bone and shoulder, where there is a depression.
- You might also find tapping on your breastbone (sternum) and over your upper chest helps improve your ability to breath deeply, while it also stimulates your thymus–part of your immune system.
Let me know if you have your own favourite health tips for fall, whether it’s acupressure points to support your immune system, your choice of healthy foods for fall, or other. You can also check out my 3 previous articles on health tips for fall via these links:
Health through Vancouver’s cold, damp
Fall: Letting Go with Breath
Chinese Medicine Health Tips for Fall Season
Of course I also think you should get regular tune-up treatments of acupuncture for optimal wellness, especially with seasonal transitions.
Looking for Healthy Dinner Recipes?
When travelling in Turkey, I picked up some saffron. I didn’t know what I’d do with it, as I’m really not much of a cook, but it seemed a good gift for a chef friend–I’d split the small container with her, as it’s notoriously expensive. I know I could add it to my rice, but I keep forgetting. So, as a result, my share is still waiting to be used.
And now I’ve found a recipe I had saved and forgotten. Yum! Time to get cooking! This is one of the healthy dinner recipes I love. Easy.
Yes, saffron is expensive, but a little goes a long way. And it’s good for you! Saffron has powerful antioxidants and it can be used as a digestive, an antidepressant, cancer fighter, and immune system support.
This may become one of my special go-to easy-to-make healthy dinner recipes.
Saffron Stewed Chickpeas Recipe
I skipped the olives that are in the original recipe, as I don't like olives, but you can add them in, if you like.
- 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded, cut into 1/2" cubes
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 – 28 oz can diced tomatoes
- 2 cups dried chickpeas, boiled and drained
- 1/3 cup orange juice
- 1/4 tsp saffron threads
- Heat oil over medium heat in a large pot.
- Add bell pepper, onion, and garlic.
- Sauté for 10 minutes, until veggies are soft.
- Stir in tomatoes, chickpeas, orange juice, and saffron.
- Bring to a boil.
- Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook for 10 minutes.
- Serve hot.
Adapted from Alive Magazine
Acupuncture, TCM, natural health, Vancouver, BC http://www.activetcm.com/