If you read the papers or watch the news, there is a good chance that you’ve seen the latest nutrition report from the World Health Organization. The story has been reported worldwide by virtually every major news organization.
In case you’re not aware, the report, produced by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, implicates processed meat and red meat in colon cancer.
Here’s the gist of the press release from the IARC:
“Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans … The consumption of red meat [is] probably carcinogenic to humans …”
But don’t banish your juicy Filet Mignon just yet! The real truth of the matter is actually contained within the full report, published in The Lancet.
“Chance, bias, and confounding could not be ruled out with the same degree of confidence for the data on red meat consumption, since no clear association was seen in several of the high quality studies and residual confounding from other diet and lifestyle risk is difficult to exclude. The Working Group concluded that there is limited evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat”.
In case you missed that …
There was no clear association regarding red meat consumption and cancer risk.
So, what are the real facts? Can you still enjoy your favorite Paleo meals without increasing your risk of cancer?
The Link between Eating Ice Cream… and Drowning
Did you know that decades of statistics prove that as ice cream consumption increases, so do deaths from drowning?
It’s true. There is a very clear correlation between these two statistics… but it goes without saying that ice cream does not cause people to drown.
The numbers of people eating ice cream go up sharply during the summer. As you can imagine, so too do the number of swimmers. It’s clear that correlation does not equal causation. Always keep this in mind when it comes to “scientific” reports.
In this case, the IARC considered data from over 800 different studies on cancer in humans as it relates to red and/or processed meat. Sadly, however, all of these studies were epidemiological.
These are not controlled clinical studies designed to prove causation. They are population studies, often based on questionnaires. While some population studies can provide useful information, most are unreliable.
Did You Have Fries With That?
Can you remember what you ate last Saturday? How about last year?
One reason why food questionnaires are unreliable is because they ask for historical food recall. This paves the way for poor memory and a misrepresentation of facts. There is a large difference between someone recalling that they ate a steak, when the truth was that it was a steak and fries…
… Washed down with a beer or soft drink
… Followed by a cigarette.
Another reason why these studies are unreliable is that they don’t distinguish between variables such as the source of the red meat or the preparation method. They also don't consider general diet, level of fitness (or fatness) or other carcinogens to which the subjects may be exposed.
The IARC does acknowledge this in their full report. It would be nice if the world’s media had done the same.
So now, let’s take a look at what you really need to know about red meat and cancer risk.
The 5 Unhealthy Ways to Consume Red Meat
Heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCAs) are formed when muscle meats; beef, pork, poultry and fish, are exposed to high temperatures such as grilling. Acrylamide is formed when plant foods rich in carbohydrates (like sugary marinades or the French fries that commonly accompany beef) are cooked at high temperatures. Research demonstrates that both of these compounds are known carcinogens.
What Goes Into the Animal, Goes Into You
Epidemiological studies make no distinction between pasture-raised and conventionally-raised meats; main factors being their feed and the administration of hormones and antibiotics. The beef from corn-fed cows can have as much 50 times more omega-6 fatty acids than that from grass-fed cows. Too much omega-6 has been conclusively proven to promote inflammation and oxidation – two key factors that can promote cancer. What’s more, antibiotic residues from conventional meats wreak havoc on the microbiome – altering the delicate balance of microbes, including those that produce butyrate – a powerful cancer-fighting agent.
Pots, pans, storage containers and wraps can leach harmful substances into our foods. Non-stick pans are just one of these offenders which leach toxic substances like trifluoroacetate (TFA) and perfluorooctanic acid (PFOA) into the food you eat, as well as into the air around you. These chemicals, collectively called perflourinated compounds, are xenoestrogens (estrogen mimics) and have been linked with cancer, endocrine issues, “polymer fume fever” and other health problems in humans.
Chewing the Wrong Fats
Lipid oxidation products (LOPs) are created by the degradation of oils. This happens through heat, aging and chemicals (like hydrogenation). As these oils break down, they generate free radicals that damage DNA and have been found to increase the risk of cancer. When we heat unstable oils (like the polyunsaturated fatty acid omega-6 oils) we produce these dangerous LOP's. This could make the fat you are using to cook with carcinogenic, without regard to the meat itself.
Dietary & Lifestyle Factors
We all know that smoking is a Category 1A Carcinogen. But do you know that some contraceptives are too? Acetaldehyde, (the by-product of alcohol metabolism) and inactivity are two more key factors that increase cancer risk. And how about being overweight or obese? According to the National Cancer Institute, obesity is overtaking tobacco as the leading preventable cause of cancer. It goes without saying that these kind of variables cannot be ruled out as potential causes of cancer in “population” studies.
Cancer Prevention through Ancestral Wisdom
- Choose Healthy Sources: When choosing meats, choose grass-fed and pasture-raised to achieve a healthy fat balance and avoid exposure to antibiotic residues, pesticides and hormones that can encourage cancer.
- Nourishing Preparation: If you're going to cook at higher temperatures, be sure to choose stable fats like tallow, lard, coconut oil or grass fed butter. Better still, focus your cooking around stewing, boiling, poaching and slow cooking when it comes to meats. Cook with non-toxic cookware like ceramic, enamel or cast iron to reduce toxic chemicals leaching into your food. And use natural herbs and spices to bring out the flavor and nutritional value of the meal.
- Don’t Forget Your Veggies: Enjoy a colorful, varied diet with lots of fresh organic produce (free from hormone-mimicking pesticides). Also be sure to include microbe-loving lacto-fermented vegetables such as like sauerkraut or kimchi.
- Live a Balanced Lifestyle: Maintain a smoke free, active lifestyle and a healthy weight. If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation and opt for organic red wine which is high in antioxidants, including the powerful cancer-fighter resveratrol.
- Reduce Toxins: Take into consideration all of the “inputs” that make their way into your body via your stomach, lungs and skin. Breathe fresh air, consider an indoor HEPA filter to reduce your exposure to indoor pollution, and choose household and personal care products made without harmful ingredients.
- Get Sunshine: Vitamin D is one of the most powerful cancer-fighting nutrients known. In fact, a study presented at the 53rd Annual Meeting of the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) found that 75% of cancer patients had low vitamin D levels , and those with the lowest vitamin D levels were associated with more advanced cancers.
Prevent (and fight) cancer with a healthy, active lifestyle and the diet that models our ancestors including an abundance of organic veggies and low-glycemic fruits, lacto-fermented foods, stable, traditional fats and meats from animals raised on pasture that are prepared safely. In addition, don’t smoke, achieve (or maintain) a healthy weight, optimize your vitamin D levels and avoid chemicals in household and personal care products to reduce your risk of cancer.
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(1) International Agency for Research on Cancer. Media Press Release #240.
(2) Bouvard, V. Loomis, D. Guyton, K. et al. Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat. The Lancet Oncology. Published online Oct 26, 2015. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S1470-2045(15)00444-1
(3) Muscat JE, Wynder EL. The consumption of well-done meat and the risk of colorectal cancer. American Journal of Public Health 1994; 84(5):856-858.
(4) Friedman M, Levin CE.Review of methods for the reduction of dietary content and toxicity of acrylamide.J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Aug 13;56(15):6113-40. Epub 2008 Jul 15.
(5) Wikipedia. List of IARC Group 1 carcinogens
(6) Cancer Research UK. Physical Activity Facts And Evidence.
(7) National Cancer Institute. Obesity and Cancer Risk.
(8) Vitamin D deficiency common in cancer patients. American Society for Radiation Oncology. Oct. 3 2011
Bonefeld-Jorgensen, Manhai Long, E. Bossi, R. et al. Perfluorinated compounds are related to breast cancer risk in greenlandic inuit: A case control study. Environmental Health 2011, 10:88. doi:10.1186/1476-069X-10-88.
Zoe Harcombe. Diet, obesity, nutrition and big business: So much, so wrong. World Health Organisation, meat & cancer.
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