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Is Red Meat Really as Dangerous as Cigarrettes? The REAL Story on Red Meat and Processed Meats

by Cat Ebeling, RN, BSN
& Mike Geary, Certified Nutrition Specialist
co-authors of The Fat Burning Kitchen

A side of cancer with your bacon? Really?!
A side of cancer with your bacon? Really?!

The news, the internet, Facebook and Twitter are all buzzing again about red meat, processed meats, and cancer. This time it seems like it is getting a lot of coverage.  But this isn’t the first time the media has tried to villify red meat and/or processed meat.

Let’s take a deeper look at all of this…

This latest study was published in the well-known and prestigious publication, The Lancet, but it was reported by the World Health Organization. The WHO is a big deal and they are, to most people, the ‘last word’ on worldwide health. This study was evaluated in October of this year, when 22 scientists from ten countries convened in Lyon, France to look at the body of data.

I can’t actually say this report was not big enough, as it actually looked at over 800 epidemiological studies from many different countries and several continents, using multiple ethnicities and various diets. Unlike another study conducted on red meat and processed meat in 2007, this study actually looked at the two types of meat separately and classified them separately. This was no small ‘fly-by-night’ study.

What did the study say?

In this last study, the WHO actually classified processed meats as a “Group 1 Established Carcinogen”, which puts it in the same category as asbestos, cigarettes, benzene, nuclear fallout, plutonium, and x-rays, among other things. Scary stuff, and if you have read the ingredients on a typical hot dog package, that’s some scary stuff too!

The WHO classification for red meat into “Group 2A Probable Carcinogens” includes things like glycophosphates, sun burn, DDT, frying at high temperatures, working as a hairdresser, and exposure to petroleum products.  At this point, a ‘Probable Carcinogen’ could be almost anything.

Red meat includes meat from animals such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat.

Processed meats include pork, beef or other red meats that have been salted, cured, or smoked, usually with the addition of chemical preservatives— such as nitrates and nitrites—already classified as carcinogenic.  Big difference.

The most significant part of the study showed a high prevalence of colon cancers associated with processed meats. This is not a new finding. This has been shown over and over again, as in these reports on processed meats and cancer from 2013, and another one from 2005.

Red meat, however is a slightly different story. Red meat is known to contain one of the highest quality proteins on earth, high levels of vitally important vitamin B-12, and other B vitamins, zinc, heme iron (easily metabolized and utilized by the body as opposed to iron from plant-based sources), and if you are eating the healthier, grass-fed variety of meat, you are also getting a nice serving of vital omega 3 fats, and cancer-fighting, fat burning CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) to boot.

So… what’s the TRUTH?

Gotta love a good steak!

So what is the actual risk of eating red meat or processed meats?  Well, according to the study, the risk goes up according to the amounts of red meat or processed meat eaten. For every 100 g of red meat eaten, the risk went up 17%, and for every 50 g of processed meat, the risk went up 18% for colorectal cancers.

So basically processed meat carries about twice the risk of eating red meat. However, in this report from May 2011, shows there was no significant connection found between red meat and colorectal cancer. Puzzling.

According to the WHO report which classified processed meat in the same category as cigarettes, and red meat a step below, then just how much does your risk of cancer really increase if you eat cured and processed meats?

While 17% and 18% increase in risk sounds significant, you also have to look at relative risk of colon cancer overall.

Here is where it gets a little complicated—while colon cancer is the third most common cause of cancer and cancer-related deaths, the absolute lifetime risk overall of developing colon cancer is about 1.8% for the average 50-year-old. That’s fairly low. So if the risk of colon cancer from eating red and processed meat goes up 17-18%, it’s only 17-18% of that 1.8%. Make sense?

Your chances are about 1 in 33,000, or three extra cases of colorectal cancer per 100,000 people who may develop bowel cancer from eating cured and processed meats. This is a far cry from smoking cigarettes, where your chances of getting cancer are twenty times that!

What is most important however, and not taken into consideration here, is huge lifestyle variables involved in this study and this group of people that cannot be controlled. An actual controlled study would have everyone in the study in a similar living situation, in isolation, where everyone involved would be eating exactly the same foods, exercising the same, getting the same amount of sleep, and being exposed or not being exposed to other potential carcinogens, etc.

That just can’t be done, and since it takes over years and years for cancer to develop,  the study has to become an observational one—with no accounting for variables in diet, lifestyle, or other environmental carcinogens. Read about the differences in how scientific studies are conducted here.

It’s a foregone conclusion that many heavy red meat eaters are not necessarily eating a large quantities of fresh organic veggies and fruits—they are generally eating low-quality, factory-farm raised, grain-fed, disease-ridden, antibiotic and growth hormone laced, fast food burgers, usually with a highly processed wheat flour bun (and you know why wheat flour is harmful to your body, right), sauces full of preservatives, and often with a side of chemical-laden French fries fried in highly refined, heated and inflammatory vegetable oil (a strong carcinogen in its own right).

Oh, and don’t forget the big dollop of highly sweetened (sugar and corn syrup increase cancer susceptibility), highly refined catsup.  I also doubt that most heavy red and processed meat eaters are sticking to their daily exercise or yoga class schedule, or a meditation routine.  People who eat the most red meat are generally not the healthiest group of people on the planet, overall.  I know that’s a generalization overall, but the point is that these studies are flawed because the average heavy meat eater might also be a smoker, alcoholic, eat a lot of junk food, or have other unhealthy habits.

After all, the majority of heavy red meat eaters aren’t usually eating organic, pasture-raised red meat and combining it with a boatload of veggies, and other antioxidants, like you and I are doing.

And don’t forget that most red meat is usually cooked over high heat. Often it is seared, grilled or charred for flavor, which unfortunately creates a another group of carcinogenic compounds called heterorocylic amines, which we talk about in this article — Never grill meat, unless you do THIS first.

Other contributors to the red and processed meat and cancer study, have to do the health of the animal used for processed meat (it’s usually not the Grade A quality type, but the diseased and sickly ones), along with the flavor enhancers, artificial coloring, fillers, and chemicals used to preserve this ‘food’. Have you read the ingredients of your bologna or hot dog wrapper lately? Most of these ingredients are carcinogens in their own right.

So for those of you who eat meat, is it time to give up your steaks and bacon?

Well…here is what I have to say about that:

Red meat has numerous health benefits and when you choose pasture-raised, it’s actually healthier than white meat in many ways… but it also has a dark side if you choose the wrong source or type. The typical factory farm contains animals that lead a totally miserable life of being mishandled, pumped full of drugs, crowded, sick, and slaughtered inhumanely.  It is a sad, sad situation, and one that I am more conscious of every day.  This is why my family chooses properly raised (pasture-raised meats) that are fed the right food, raised outdoors instead of crowded in tight quarters, and treated humanely throughout their life.

With that said, I am NOT an advocate of being vegan or vegetarian, either (at least from a health perspective) —the fact is that most people suffer from serious nutritional deficiencies over time that can create big health problems of their own down the road.  And supplementation is simply not effective for the particular nutrients that you miss if you don’t eat meat.  If you want to read a fascinating blog post of how veganism destroyed one woman’s health, read this. You’ll see how she regained her health by including meat in her diet again.

So what is the solution to the potential problems with eating red meat and processed meat?

The solution to both issues is to choose pasture-raised meats when you do eat red meat, and to minimize processed meats unless they simply use spices and herbs for processing instead of chemicals. Eat the healthiest versions of red meat: If you can find it, that would be grass-fed, locally-raised meat (which contains high quality fats and antioxidants that actually fight cancer, such as CLA), and avoid fast food joints and commercially raised meats that include the worst quality of meat possible. Include in your diet large quantities of fresh and organic vegetables, one of the keys to good health.

Also realize the cancer-fighting powers of many herbs and spices, which can help offset any carcinogenic effect of processed meats that you might be eating.  An example of this would be including ample amounts of turmeric in your morning eggs, to go along with your bacon.  The turmeric is such a powerful anti-cancer spice, that it helps offset any carcinogens in the bacon.

Marinate your meat in herbs and spices, and don’t cook it over high heat to cut way back on the carcinogens created from cooking and grilling at higher heat. Eat your meat rare or med-rare (ground beef from grass fed cattle doesn’t tend to breed the dangerous E.coli bacteria that factory farm raised beef does).

Stay away from hot dogs and cured lunch meats as much as you can —I hardly even consider them ‘real’ meat, anyway!  If you want to eat bacon or other ‘processed’ meats once in a while, make sure they are the 100% natural, without added chemicals, and pasture-raised if possible.

So the solution for your body and your health becomes the best solution for the planet too—avoid processed meats and factory-farm raised meats, and choose pasture-raised instead…your body AND the planet will be much much healthier in the long run.

To your health,

Mike Geary &
Catherine Ebeling

On a related topic, make sure you understand the REAL truth about saturated fat by reading these articles below if you haven’t seen them before:

The TRUTH about saturated fat (written by a PhD in nutritional biochemistry)

Is saturated fat actually GOOD for you?

References:

Alexander, Cushing. “Red meat and colorectal cancer: a critical summary of prospective epidemiologic studies”, National Center of Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. May 12, 2011.

Bouvard, et al., “Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat”, The Lancet, October 2015.

Chan, et al., “Red and processed meat and colorectal cancer incidence: meta-analysis of prospective studies”, National Center of Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. June, 2011.

Institute for Natural Healing, “Processed meats too dangerous for human consumption”, July 21, 2015.

Chris Kresser, “Red Meat and Cancer—Again! Will it Ever Stop?”, October 29, 2015. Chriskresser.com

Mark Sisson, “What Does the WHO Report Mean for Your Red Meat Eating Habit”, October 28, 2015. Marksdailyapple.com

About The Watchdog

Mike Geary has been a Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for over 15 years now. He has been studying nutrition and exercise for almost 25 years, ever since being a young teenager. Mike is originally from Pennsylvania, but has fallen in love with mountain life and now resides in the picturesque mountains of Utah. Mike is an avid adventurist and when he’s not spending his time skiing, mountain biking, hiking, or paddleboarding on the lake, he has enjoyed skydiving, whitewater rafting, piloting an Italian fighter plane (seriously), scuba diving, heli-skiing, and traveling all around the world, enjoying learning about different cultures. At the age of 40, Mike now feels healthier, stronger, and more energetic than when he was 20... All because of a healthy lifestyle and great nutrition!

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One comment

  1. Once more we are treated with Psuedo-Science – as you note an observational study which establishes correlation but not causation. The media of course eats these up and loves to blare the big headline.

    I think you guys are spot on as always, I have written on the subject myself several times. I hate to be such a scientific skeptic, but frankly you have to be these days until someone with serious research bona fides can vett the study, or you can do it yourself.

    I read somewhere to treat meat as a condiment, or supplement, or a side, rather than the main dish. I personally think that makes sense, and it may be healthiest to eat meat in very moderate portions. My red meat consumption is on the order of 6 ounces per day.

    Thanks for a great post

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