Can eating processed meat cause cancer?

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 8.50.35 AMFor anyone reading or watching the news this past week or so, the headline above probably came up. If you are someone who regularly consumes meat it may even have worried you.

So, what is really going on?

The news isn’t always right
First, be aware that this headline is appearing in places that make their money selling subscriptions or advertising. They are in the business of getting your attention. This is already a bit of a conflict of interest. Be aware.

The rumors have been greatly exaggerated
Second, what is really going on here. If you read the articles carefully and maybe even jump over to the study that is cited, you will see that the argument is that processed meat can raise your likelihood of getting colon cancer by about 17%. From what I read, the likelihood of getting colon cancer across the population is about 2%. If high school math serves me, eating processed meat raises my probability for getting colon cancer from 2% to about 2.3%. Is that bad? Well, colon cancer sucks anyway you look at it but this increase is not exactly significant. There are other major risk factors for colon cancer as well and if you are over 50 like me please go and get screened now if you haven’t.

Further this study was a meta-analysis or study of some 800 other studies. This was not a bunch of doctors looking at people under microscopes. It was people looking at other researchers’ studies. And, these other studies were done using the observation of behavior. This means that the subjects of the study had to self report what they were eating, when and how much. For anyone who has tried to keep a food log, you know this is not very accurate.

Is meat really just meat?
Third, is red meat just red meat? Not really. Lets look at three very unscientific categories that I have created for this discussion.

1) Processed meat – This category is made up of products like hot dogs, beef jerky, etc. Meat that is combined with a lot of things that aren’t meat including chemicals and then at the end you get a “product” that may resemble meat. Is it any surprise at all that this bucket of meat products could increase the likelihood of getting cancer? Not at all. Frankly I am surprised the increase is as low as reported above. Everyone should eliminate or limit the intake of any processed foods including processed meats. If you have a high probability for colon cancer due to other risk factors, it is probably smart to eliminate this category altogether.

2) Just plain red meat – The next category would be the hamburger or steak that you eat. Most meat in this category that people consume would be considered commercial or industrial beef. This comes from cows that spend their lives packed into a corral like sardines waddling around in their own feces that require a regular intake of antibiotics just to survive. Additionally, these cows are fed things like grain and scraps of crap that are not in their normal diet. So, what happens when you feed an animal something that it isn’t supposed to eat and make it stand in a crowd in its own shit? It becomes very unhealthy. Again, I ask, is it any surprise that eating some or even a lot of this kind of red meat can increase the risk of cancer? For a double whammy of trouble, the processed meat in the category above will typically come from this commercial, industrial beef.

3) Grass fed organic beef – The last category contains the beef that comes from cattle that have lived in a natural open environment and that have been fed the very diet they evolved to eat: grass. These animals are healthy and active. The beef that comes from these cows is much different than the commercial meat in the category above. To me at least, there is a place for eating grass fed meat or butter or yogurt that comes from grass fed cows fairly regularly in a healthy diet.

Ethical issues are different
Beyond these categories, there are people who avoid meat altogether due to ethical concerns about killing animals, how they are treated or the sustainability of the practice of supplying meat. These are personal decisions and have nothing to do with the health factors above.

What about saturated fat?
Another concern about meat is the intake of saturated fat. Saturated fat has been demonized for years mostly incorrectly. And, now the pendulum is starting to swing the other way. HERE is an article on WebMD on the subject. The bottom line is that eating sugar and processed foods are a lot more dangerous so once you get rid off all of that you can read more carefully about saturated fat and decide what to do. Here is a thought in the meantime. Breast milk (by and large) and our own body fat are forms of saturated fat so I have trouble thinking that it is all bad.

Cooking also matters
One additional thing to think about is cooking. Burning meat or eating it well done can also potentially increase your risk of cancer. Eating it rare, or reducing the amount of crunchy crust on your meat can reduce this risk as can eating a lot of vegetables with your meat. This study doesn’t seem to address how the meat was cooked.

Now what?
So, what do we do? To me you 1) eat as little as possible of the processed meat in bucket number 1 and if you do eat something like bacon or jerky try to make it organic and/or from grass fed cows. 2) Reduce bucket #2 as well when you can and finally 3) Switch your beef intake as much as possible to bucket #3 but still eat in moderation: think 3 times a week not 3 times a day.

If you want more information on this subject and more detail than I am qualified to provide, there is a great discussion in a recent Ben Greenfield podcast HERE.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. Worse I was an English Major in college. I did go to a college in the Midwest though where there were many cows around. Seriously though, I urge you to take your health more seriously. Read about your health. Question authority. Everyone is different and what works for the “experts” might not work for you.

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