Maybe Our Red Meat IS Causing Cancer…?
Sure, everyone’s talking about the recent World Health Organization’s research study released last week deeming red meat the next tobacco, but does anyone actually know what the hell they are talking about when it comes to the study itself and the conclusions that were made?
It’s as American as the corn fed beef we routinely smash to our faces to have an opinion on topics without ever doing any homework on the subject at hand. Luckily for you all, we have our JRx nutrition expert, Michael Gorski, RD setting the red meat record straight this week and finally putting to bed the untrue and falsified myths that have been ignorantly rambled across the industry for a week too long.
Here’s What You Need To Know…
1. For those of you too lazy to read the recent World Health Organization’s study on the carcinogenic nature of meat, here’s a quick update; processed meats are cancer causing, and red meats may POTENTIALLY be associated with increased incidence of cancer.
2. Processed meat is terrible for your general health and wellbeing, duh! The bigger picture for processed meats is more specific to the dose, along with the other co-morbid factors associated with cancer such as exercise, lifestyle choices and other nutritional intakes which has been vastly overlooked.
3. The source of your red meat and the way in which it is prepared DOES MATTER. As red meat is burned under high temperatures it is broken down into compounds that are often times associated with smoking. Want to stay healthy and still enjoy a nice New York strip? Stop charring your food.
4. Cows are born to eat grass and produce mass amounts of nature’s fertilizer. Since America started pumping our cattle full of corn and grain, our Western culture is partly to blame for this epidemiological outrage. Want to protect yourself? Stop buying the $1.99 special and start investing in your health.
5. In the end, it all comes back to eating high quality, nutrient dense foods – most of the time. Don’t fall into the media’s scare tactic of comparing a steak to smoking two packs a day for three decades. Everything in moderation, and remember, there is more to health than the consumption of animal carcasses.
So Apparently Eating Meat Is Leading Us To A Slow Death…
With the recent release of the report by The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer research agency of the World Health Organization (WHO), on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat, gym bros have been up in arms and flooding social media with rebellious pictures of 32 oz. steaks wrapped in bacon. Enough with the meat pictures guys, we get it; you love your meat and want us to love it too.
First and foremost, a lot of the same people who are ignorantly ranting about big media skewing and bastardizing the report, which just happens to be true, are the same bang-wagoner’s who haven’t even taken the time to read the report themselves, granted their reading comprehension level is above that of a 5th grader.
The Most Groundbreaking Meat Study Ever?
For those of you too lazy to educate yourself from a level one source such as the actual study itself, here’s a little summary to save you some precious time and get you back to Candy Crush. According to the WHO’s website report, and associated Q & A segment, Red meat was classified as Group 2A, probably carcinogenic to humans. What does this ambiguous classification exactly mean?
…the classification is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence.
Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out… (1)
OK, so the big research conclusion on red meat in general wasn’t exactly what you thought it’d be, right? Hold on bros, what about processed meat? Processed meat was classified as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans.
This category is used when there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. In other words, there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer. The evaluation is usually based on epidemiological studies showing the development of cancer in exposed humans.
In the case of processed meat, this classification is based on sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer. (1)
Damn! No more mystery meat from Five Guys I guess. But in the grand scheme of all things nutrition and health, what does this this study really mean to us? Is this groundbreaking news worthy of Trump like coverage, or are these conclusions things we already should have known and been practicing before one study told us how to live and eat?
The Physical Catastrophe of Eating Processed Meat
When it comes down to it, quality still matters when we are talking about the body and the potential for DNA and molecular changes brought on from eating carcinogenic compounds.
Sure, a calorie is still a calorie, and that’s great if you are purely trying to lose or gain weight. However, a calorie from a piece of highly processed Jimmie Dean breakfast sausage contains many more potentially carcinogenic compounds than a calorie from a high quality grass fed beef filet.
So what exactly happens when processed meat is processed? In a nutshell, artificial casing and processed meat are created by combining different cuts and parts of animals with preservatives and fillers.
First, most processed red meats tend to be loaded with saturated fats, color additives (to falsify their freshness) and sodium. Second, it is hard to know exactly what “parts” of an animal make it into your hot dogs and sausages. Bone fragments, blood vessels, some pieces of less appetizing organs, etc. can all make their way into some of the most highly processed meats.
When a label says “mechanically separated meat”, do you know what that means? That’s code for an entire part of the animal, bones and all, has been forced through a sieve under high pressure, oozing—to quote the FDA (our meats GOVERNING BODY)—a “paste-like and batter-like product” on the other side. That “paste-like” product contains a high percentage of “ground, crushed and pulverized bones,” evident in high levels of calcium, which is cool with the FDA.(6)
The biggest carcinogenic difference between processed and unprocessed meat is due to the presence of N-Nitroso compounds, which are more commonly referred to as nitrites and nitrates, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that are commonly found in processed meats as a preservative. According to the EPA, these compounds are also found in cigarettes, burnt coal, and overly charred foods.
Lets be clear here, I am not making the claim that eating a strip of bacon or a tasty crispy pork rib from PF Chang’s is the same as lighting up a Marb Red. The fact is, these compounds have the POTENTIAL to increase your cancer risk, and if you are truly trying to minimize your risk, then you want to limit your exposure. And as a side note, smoking is still really, really bad for you.
The bigger picture for processed meats is more specific to the dose. Eating a few Riblettes from Applebees once in a blue moon after a few too many PBR Tall Boys is just considered enjoying life and all its temptations. Throwing down 12 strips of confusingly cardboard-like turkey bacon every morning, with the self-justifying “that’s how the cavemen did it” thought. This is not only increasing your risk for exposure to known carcinogens, but is also shows ones naïve nature that is simply detrimental to ones health; eerily similar to smoking.
Should We Be Eating More Chicken Instead?
Now, breaking down the second finding – good ‘ole red meat. The report that many neglected to even read clearly states that there is no conclusive link between red meat (not processed meat) and cancer. However, it may be news to many that not all red meat comes from the same source, nor is it considered the same quality. Cows aren’t just cows like they used to be. Welcome to our Westernized nutritional ecosystem.
First, how the meat is prepared does matter. Eating copious amounts of burnt or charred meat may increase your risk for cancer, sorry Texas. This is essentially consuming sauced up mega-portions of solidified smoke. Yum! Charring meat causes chemical changes in the meat that forms those same polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic amines (HCA) that are found in processed meats.
HCAs are formed when amino acids, sugars, and creatine in the meat react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat. (2)
The links between these compounds have been established in animal studies, but are still up in the air in regards to humans. The animal studies involved the exposure of mega doses of HCA’s and PAH’s that would be hard to consume human-sized equivalents without eating the burnt remnants left on the grill.
Let the lesson be learned. All in all, it is still probably a good idea to minimize your burnt meat intake. But if you can’t fight back the temptation to gnaw down some charred beef carcass, don’t be sad when your insides start to wage war against your physical health and wellbeing.
When It Comes To Beef, Quality Sources DO Matter
Cooking processes aside, the quality of the meat itself also matters when it comes to the composition of certain beneficial nutrients found in red meat. Go to pretty much any foreign country and mention “grass fed beef” and the residents are bound to say something along the lines of “Isn’t all beef grass fed?” The United States is the leading producer of grain fed (mostly corn) beef, and thus making us the number one consumer as well. Studies have shown that grass fed beef contains up to five times more Omega-3 fatty acids than standard American diet grain fed beef. Also, grass fed beef contains twice the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) as grain fed.
This matters because Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help with a multitude of health factors, including potentially decreasing the risk of colon cancer. (3) I will note that these studies are far from conclusive as far as causation and prevention goes, but the benefits seem to outweigh any sign of risk. Also, CLA has been linked to having anti-carcinogenic effects, reducing atherosclerosis, and the onset of diabetes – all conditions related to increased risks for cancer.
Yes, we have all been on a budget before and sometimes cutting dollars here and there is crucial. High quality red meats will cost a bit more from your wallet, but the price may end up saving you some money in health care costs in the long run.
It is always best to purchase your meat directly, or as close to directly from the source as possible. Do a quick search and you can find some high quality butcher shops in your area. This way, you can speak to the person who knows the history of the animal, its feed conditions, and the way in which it was raised.
Low quality, cheap, “red meats” are higher in saturated fat, fillers, and other potentially pro-inflammatory elements. Make sure when you are devouring or damning red meat, you are aware of the quality and composition first. Like Chipotle says, go with natural sourcing!
What about skipping the meat all together? Chances are if you are reading this on DrJohnRusin.com, you know a thing or two about the importance of protein in your diet. While it is possible to maintain a sound physique without meat, it is much more beneficial and essentially easier to keep all your bases covered by eating meat.
First, animal protein contains a complete amino acid profile, while plant proteins do not. Secondly, red meat especially, is high in iron, zinc, selenium, B12, and other essential micronutrients for the metal banging lifters out there. Lastly, studies have also shown that meat helps boost your testosterone, with some precursors and plasma steroids showing up at 20-25% higher levels versus vegetarian eaters! (7,8)
Didn’t We Already Know This “Groundbreaking Information” Already?
Lastly, another huge thing to remember in regards to this report, past reports, and other reports that are sure to come out that condemn a certain food as being dangerous (remember when egg yolks were the new cigarettes?), is that in reality, we eat more than just this one given food.
If you sit around eating nothing but hot dogs, burnt spare ribs, bacon-wrapped macaroni and cheese sandwiches and pink slime burgers, then you will have an increased risk for certain types of cancer. This is not breaking news. It’s called eating shitty food and eventually paying the price for it.
There are many foods that have been associated with reducing the risk of cancer – including cruciferous vegetables, high anti-oxidant berries, and quality fiber containing carbohydrates – just to name a few. (5)
Overall diet quality is always something that needs to be considered. Eating one Italian salami and cap infused cheese plate “when in Rome…” will not automatically give you colon cancer. Live your life, and even shoot to try enjoying it at times. Consuming high quality grass fed beef over a fast food burger is a great choice when you are trying to improve your overall diet quality.
In the end, it all comes back to eating high quality, nutrient dense foods – most of the time. Just as eating one delicious piece of pie will not make you fat; eating one strip of bacon will also not cause cancer. As with everything, the quantity and quality of the dose is what truly matters.
About The Author
Mike Gorski is a Registered Dietitian and personal trainer located just outside of Madison, Wisconsin. Mike works with clients on a wide variety of goals including sports performance, post-rehab training, weight loss, and overall healthy behavior change. His ideas and methods have been featured on some of the top publications in the fitness industry including the Personal Trainer Development Center. Mike’s mission is to create positive behavior change with all his clients that will not only get them to their personal goal, but last them a lifetime. Learn more about Mike on his Website: www.mgfitlife.com.
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