Have you heard all of the hubub? Earlier this week the World Health Organization announced the results of an evidence review that link meat and cancer.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, a group within the WHO tasked to conduct this review, assessed more than 800 epidemiological studies, most of which showed strong links to diets high in processed meats and colorectal cancer.
According to the results, "data were also available for more than 15 other types of cancer."
Before I go any further it is important to clarify that this finding was not the result of any experiments or a clinical trials, conducted in a lab or with a hypothesis, but simply a compendium of evidence gathered from hundreds of epidemiological studies. (Epidemiology being "the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events [including disease], and the application of this study to the control of diseases and other health problems.")
According to the IARC, processed meat is defined as "meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation." The report found that processed and cured meats, specifically those containing nitrates and nitrates, have a strong link to colorectal cancer. The report also stated that red meat - including beef, lamb, and fatty cuts of pork - also has potential carcinogenic effects.
The reasoning behind this is not unfounded: according to the many studies examined, meat processing (including cooking over high heat) can form harmful by-products that can oxidize within the body and cause bad things - like cancer - to happen on a cellular level. But this isn't unique to meat. If you read any of the contemporary literature on cholesterol, heart disease, and industrial polyunsaturated oils (canola, soybean, corn, etc.), you'll see the same carcinogenic oxidation happening in these molecules that, once eaten, can cause some pretty nasty stuff to happen in our organ systems.
We've been hearing recommendations to reduce meat intake for years now, from everyone from the USDA to popular journalists like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman. To a certain extent, I agree that smaller portions of meat and larger portions of vegetables are better for individual health and the health of the environment in general; however, avoiding all meat all the time because it might cause cancer is, in my opinion, not a good enough reason to make a diet change.
The WHO is not in the business of fear-mongering, and the recommendations given as a result of the evidence review are actually very reasonable: they take care to point out that nearly everything is a carcinogen in certain amounts; no one is saying to never eat bacon ever again, but rather to moderate the amount of this category of foods consumed. The WHO also points out that there are distinct health benefits to be gained from eating red meat, as it is rich in zinc, B vitamins, and valuable minerals.
"Scientific evidence shows cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods and that a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle choices are essential to good health," writes Barry Carpenter, president of the North American Meat Institute, in a statement on the new WHO classification. (source)
It's the media that's making a big stink about the issue, riling up carnivores with their dystopian fantasies of meat police and state-mandated vegan bacon. Give it a break.
As for me, I'm not concerned about the results of this evidence review. The recommendation to eat fewer processed foods and more fresh foods - meat included - has been a part of my food philosophy since day one. A diet that is varied and based on a large percentage of local, seasonal fruits and vegetables will be rich in nutrients and antioxidants, and can handle potentially carcinogenic load that the occasional pepperoni, salami, pastrami or, sure, even the occasional hot dog, could cause.
Officially, the only thing that happened was that the group responsible for this evidence compendium classified consumption of processed meat as "carcinogenic to humans." As aforementioned, there were also connections drawn between red meat and cancer, but that isn't going to alter my eating pattern in any way either. I'm not in the habit of scarfing down a charred ribeye every day, so my meals plans that are chock-full of veggies and augmented with satiating portions of grass-fed, pastured and wild-caught meats will continue to serve me well.
To read more about this information, you can read the explanation of the evidence review published in The Lancet.
As with anything regarding your own health and happiness, it's important to collect all of the evidence and ask questions. Your choices are your own responsibility - no one else can make the right decision but you.
I'd love to hear from you on this issue -- what do you think about the evidence review? Have you, like Ron Swanson, started hoarding bacon in desk drawers and ceiling tiles in preparation for a national shortage?
Open-source image from Unsplash.Com