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?
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?