If you read the news, then you’ll have seen that the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an agency of the World Health Organization, recently chucked processed meat (alongside tobacco and alcohol!) in the category of ‘cancer causing’, and red meat in the category of ‘probably cancer causing’. The assessment wasn’t on the basis of new science, but an analysis of the existing studies.
The action has prompted the usual media hoo-ha. But what is the truth behind the evidence? How exactly is processed meat giving us cancer (if it is), and how can we moderate red meat consumption so that it’s healthy for us?
Problems with the new classification
According to the IARC’s press release:
“The IARC Working Group considered more than 800 studies that investigated associations of more than a dozen types of cancer with the consumption of red meat or processed meat in many countries and populations with diverse diets. The most influential evidence came from large prospective cohort studies conducted over the past 20 years (emphasis added).”
There are at least two issues with the way the assessment has been arrived at.
(1) The associations between processed meat consumption and cancer are potentially explicable by the fact that people who are not health-conscious tend to eat more processed meat.
(2) Research hasn’t distinguished the type (quality) of the red meat under consideration. That matters, as we’ll look at below.
Putting things into perspective, there is no good reason to stop eating red meat based on the existing studies. Even eating grilled meats – which is the crux of the concern with processed meats – probably isn’t as detrimental as some other diet habits we have picked up over recent years (believing that grains and wholegrains should be a staple, for example). The truth is, as Dr Mark Hyman explains in this great video, the existing science is very limited.
However, there is a huge reason to become a quality Nazi about the types of meat that make it into your diet (red and white) – and good reasons to watch your quantity and method of preparation.
First thing’s first – know your meat
Comparing organic grass-fed beef and supermarket bacon is like comparing Nestle chocolate with a bar of raw organic Peruvian cacao. One offers vast health benefits – the other a wasted opportunity for nutrition, empty calories, and health robbing ingredients.
Much like modern grain, modern meat isn’t what it used to be.
The most common types of meat we encounter:
Processed meat: This is what’s in sausages, bacon and hotdogs. These products are usually from conventionally raised (grain fed, hormone pumped) cows, then go through various processing methods. Regularly eating these is a Pretty Bad Idea.
Conventional red meat: The lamb, beef and pork in your Indian curry and shop bought sandwiches. Conventional red meats are fairly unprocessed, but the cows are usually factory farmed. Eating these types of meat isn’t optimal either.
Grass-fed meat: Not the same as organic meat (it’s possible for meat to be organic but not grass-fed). This meat comes from animals that have been naturally fed, raised organically and not been pumped full of drugs and hormones. This is quality, nutrient dense food.
White meat: Meat from poultry like chicken and turkey. Although it didn’t make the WHO categorization this time around, ingredients in chicken have been linked to cancer too. The prevailing wisdom in health circles appears to be to enjoy organic grass-fed white meats in moderation.
How exactly processed meat is harmful to health
It was misleading of the WHO to lump processed meat in with cigarettes and alcohol. However, processed meats potentially scavenge health if they are a regular fixture in your diet.
They upset a critical health marker
Processed meats fed from soy and corn are high in omega 6 oils. (All meat contains some omega 6, but processed meats have more). We need a correct balance of omega 6 to omega 3 fats to optimize our health and reduce the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression, Alzheimer’s, and rheumatoid arthritis. Any foods – and processed meats aren’t the only culprit – that throw the balance out of whack do us harm. Huge deal.
Because of compounds produced when you cook meats
This is key to how processed meats wound up next to alcohol and tobacco.
The concern stems from chemicals produced when meats are smoked. They contain high amounts of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs), both carcinogenic compounds.
Nitrite and related compounds are also an issue. They are also found in vegetables, and aren’t a problem of themselves. However, nitrite in processed meat can turn into nitrosamines when exposed to high heat (above 266°F or 130°C), such as when frying bacon or grilling sausages.
Processed meat contains up to 50% more nitrate than unprocessed meat.
Interestingly, the nitrates themselves are only problematic if we have compromised gut bacteria. So this is yet another area where the impact of compromised integrity in the gut is felt.
Avoiding these cancer causing compounds means avoiding processed meats and adapting the way we cook all foods (see further below).
Hormones and antibiotics
The yuk factor.
Poor quality processed meats are pumped with antibiotics that are harmful to gut flora. Studies show that antibiotics cause a profound and rapid loss of diversity, and a shift in the composition of the gut flora that can not be recovered without dietary interventions. That is seriously bad news.
The use of antibiotics in British meat has increased by 35 per cent in the past four years. Many believe this over-use is contributing to the problem of human antibiotic resistance – a link recently recognized by the World Health Organisation. One recent report warned that overuse of antibiotics in animal feed is making it harder for doctors to treat life-threatening infections in young children.
Routine antibiotic use is highest in intensively farmed pigs – 200 times that used in sheep – and often used in feed as a preventative measure. This has led some experts to recommend that if you can afford only one organic meat, make it pork.
The use of hormones in British meat was outlawed in the 1980s. They are still used widely in the US.
As this infographic shows, some other delights found in your beef include endocrine (aka hormone) disrupters and mycotoxins.
They displace beneficial foods
If your plate is filled with processed meat, then it is highly likely that you are missing out on foods you should be eating – real food, including vegetables, wild fatty fish, quality cuts of meat, organic eggs, fruits and nuts.
What about red meat?
One theory about how red meat is harmful revolves around heme iron. Beef contains the highest proportion of heme iron (compared with say, pork). Studies have linked higher quantities of heme iron to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Additional research has indicated that the process of digesting red meat could lead to the release of chemicals that produce genetic damage to colon cells in just a few weeks.
Red meat optimization
Although these guidelines apply to red meat (because that is the topic of debate), they apply equally to white meats. They also apply to fish too, except the ‘quantity’ guidance. There is no upper limit on how much wild fatty fish we should eat.
The current UK guidelines are that we should consume no more than 70 grams (one small piece) per day of red meat, to minimize our risk of developing cancer. As stated, the studies that have been carried out have probably looked at low quality meat.
Having said that, we probably do not want to exceed that as eating too much animal protein doesn’t serve our overall health (not least because they raise our levels of inflammation).
You want around 20% of your diet to be quality animal protein.
A moderate consumption might look like one serving per day, five times per week.
Quality – grass-fed and organic, plus broth and organ meats
Go for grass-fed organic meat. Yes it is more expensive. And yes, it is totally worth the expense.
Google the local stockists in your area. Access to grass-fed organic meat is better, as people are becoming more clued up about nutrition.
None of the drawbacks identified above apply to grass-fed beef.
From a not-strictly-tangible-but-makes-intuitive-sense perspective, you aren’t eating all of that suffering and anxiety that the animals experience when they are mistreated. I am sure there will be science proving the effects of elevated cortisol (stress hormone) in animals effects on human health soon enough.
Here is a video by filmmaker Max Lugavere, explaining some other benefits.
Oh and if you were wondering what is up with the bone broth craze…
Broth is made by simmering meat and bones for a short period of time (45 minutes to 2 hours). The resulting liquid offers potentially vast healing benefits – it is a foundational aspect of the GAPS Protocol (a great diet for healing and sealing the gut lining and restoring the optimal bacterial ecosystem within the gastrointestinal tract).
Bone broth is super low calorie and has high nutrient density, making it a good food choice for everyone.
In general, selecting a broader spectrum of meats than we do typically is a smart idea. So in addition to experimenting with bone broth, you could vary your meat intake by trying organ meats (liver, kidney etc). Organ meats offer nutrients over and above what you get from standard meats.
We know that when meat is cooked at a high temperature, it forms the harmful compounds described above. As stated above, this applies to fish and vegetables too.
(Heating excessively compromises the integrity of a food anyway, denaturing the protein in red meat and fish, and lowering the enzymatic potential of raw vegetables. There is a whole diet/lifestyle centered on this idea).
Here are some tips to make sure your meat doesn’t form these harmful compounds:
- Use gentler cooking methods like stewing and steaming instead of grilling and frying.
- Minimize cooking at high heats and never expose your meat to a flame.
- Do not eat charred and/or smoked food. If your meat is burnt, then cut away the charred pieces.
- If you must cook at a high heat, flip your meat frequently to prevent it from getting burned.
You should note that the arguments against eating charred meat aren’t conclusive. For balance, here is a perspective from Mark of Mark’s Daily Apple.
Other hacks for meat-eaters
If you marinate your meat in garlic, red wine, lemon juice or olive oil, it can reduce HCAs significantly.
Including antioxidant spices – turmeric, chili, garlic and ginger – is a great idea too.
If you do choose to eat processed meats on occasion, you can help prevent nitrosamine formation in the body by taking at least 250 mg of vitamin C with your meal, or as much as 1 gram. If you do this, monitor your iron levels.
What’s the optimal diet for human health, anyway?
Admittedly this isn’t a question that can be disposed of within a paragraph.
Or maybe it is!
It’s looking more and more likely that most of us do well on a natural diet which minimizes relatively ‘new’ foods (modern grain and meat) and maximizes vegetables and quality animal sources. This is a version of the Paleo diet, and is being favored more and more as the diet for optimal health and longevity.
That said, both vegetarianism and meat eating are fine provided that we are focused on the best way to get nutrients. Vegetarians can become just as unhealthy as processed meat eaters if their diets hinge on low quality, carbohydrate foods.
As always, in deciding what’s right for us we need to factor in our individual body types, tolerances and preferences – some of us are fine on a largely meat free diet (vegetarian or flexitarian) and some of us feel better eating meat more regularly.
I’m including a note in about this because this is the reason that people choose to eat meat. And it’s a good reason as getting enough protein is important.
However, we just might have been over estimating the amount of protein that we need.
Eating too much protein, especially along with a poor overall diet, might fuel weight gain and risk of cancer and decrease your longevity.
Unlike fats, excess protein does not ‘burn cleanly’. The toxins that are produced as our bodies attempt to oxidize excess protein in the liver can decrease your performance and damage your health.
A good rule of thumb for protein is around 10-30% of your diet.
And this probably isn’t applicable to anyone reading this, but getting your protein exclusively from plant based sources (i.e. a vegan diet) isn’t optimal from a human health perspective.
You shouldn’t be put off from eating meat by the latest news. However, you should let it serve as a call to action to raise your standards about the meat you include in your diet.
Realistically, we probably aren’t going to get away with eating large amounts of processed meat, over a long period of time.
Six meat takeaways
- Say no to eating processed meats. Don’t stress if you eat it very occasionally, though.
- Eat meat moderately – around one piece per day, five times a week is moderate.
- Be very selective about the quality of your meat. Choose grass-fed, organic meat.
- Experiment with a spectrum of meats – organ meats and bone broth offer high quality nutrition.
- Lightly fry your meat in coconut oil, stew it or steam it. Do not deep fry and avoid grilling at high temperatures and barbecuing meat. Enjoy it carpaccio style if you can.
- Marinate your meat and use antioxidant spices as a cooking rub.