Red meat and cancer? – what to think and what to do

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A recent report from the WHO (World Health Organisation) declared that processed meat is carcinogenic and that red meat is a ”probable” carcinogen.

It is not the first time and probably not the last time that we hear of a study with similar results… but when such a credible organisation as the WHO makes such a declaration, it is important to stop and listen carefully before simply dismissing the results and going back to your steak.

What to think?

WHO’s 3 categories of carcinogens

First, let’s try to understand the 3 categories of carcinogens established by the IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer), a subdivision of the WHO.

  • Group 1: This group includes proven carcinogens, such as tobacco, asbestos and now processed meat since the most recent WHO report.
  • Group 2A: This group includes probable carcinogens, such as glyphosate (the pesticide RoundUp), ultraviolet radiations, and now your burger.
  • Group 2B: This group includes possible carcinogens and comprises a long list of things like virus, colorings, heavy metals, electromagnetic fields, etc.

Note that the only difference between these groups isn’t the degree of carcinogenicity, but only the strength of the evidence available at the moment. It is totally possible that something in the group 2B would actually be far more dangerous for your health compared to something within the group 2A or group 1, but that the available evidence isn’t sufficient to know it at this time.

Epidemiological studies: correlation isn’t causation

The type of studies used by the WHO are mostly epidemiological, which means that they look at associations and correlations between different factors and diseases… but that doesn’t allow to identify causation.

There is also the fact that these studies used Food Frequency Questionnaire (FFQs), a very rudimentary tools trying to determine how often and how much meat people have been eating in the past months and years… As you can imagine, memory and many other psychological factors can influence how people fill out these FFQs to report their red meat intake.

There has been mechanistic studies trying to determine how meat could be causing cancer but the results are not conclusive. Researchers have proposed a few hypotheses but more studies are still needed to really understand what ingredient in red meat might be to blame.

Without clear mechanism, it is legitimate to wonder whether these results could be attributed to other factors associated with red meat intake, rather than being due to red meat itself.

These studies don’t evaluate diet as a whole

The association between eating processed meat and red meat and a higher risk of cancer could be attributed to many other factors. Unfortunately, the groups of people with a higher intake of red meat in these studies often tend to lead less than healthy lifestyles (more sedentary, heavier, smoke more, etc).

Most people eating red meat actually eat it between two buns made of refined wheat flour with sugary condiments and drinks loaded with artificial ingredients and maybe a pickle as their only vegetable…

It is impossible to know whether these results are valid for people eating grass-fed & pastured meat within the context of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

I strongly believe that an active person eating grass-fed beef served with a generous serving of vegetables and avoiding processed foods cannot be compared to the typical red meat eater… but there are unfortunately absolutely NO studies that I know of that took the time to look at these details that could make a BIG difference.

What to do?

What are my options? Do I ditch the red meat or not?

If you care about your health, check out the 9 tips below to find concrete and practical ways to stay healthy without having to eliminate red meat from your menu.

#1 – Eat a LOT of veggies!

Veggies are an excellent source of antioxidants that can help protect you against inflammation and chronic diseases like cancer. Try to add a generous amount of veggies at each of your meals, even breakfast if you can (try an spinach & tomato omelet!). I like to have about half of my plate dedicated to vegetables of all colours! Follow me on instagram to see what that looks like for me!

Your challenge: Include a serving of veggies of at least 2 different colours and enough to fill half of your plate! 

#2 – Move everyday!

Many cancers, including colorectal cancer, are associated with inactivity… so make sure you move every day! You don’t have to join a gym or do anything complicated. Walking doesn’t cost anything (beside a pair of good shoes but you can even do it barefoot) and provides many health benefits!

Your challenge: Walk 30 minutes at least 5 times a week!

#3 – Avoid processed flours and refined sugars.

Unfortunately, most people eat their red meat with processed flours (hamburger buns, pasta, etc.) and refined sugars (soft drinks, desserts, etc.). Because studies showing a link between red meat and cancers might actually be showing the danger of eating the foods red meat is usually eaten with, it is a good idea to avoid these processed foods. They aren’t good for anyone or anything anyway! And we know that cancerous cells have a sweet tooth, so it is prudent to not overload the body with sugar!

Your challenge: Avoid processed flours and refined sugars… and replace them with more veggies!

#4 – Don’t eat bacon and deli meat every day.

This might seem like common sense, but it’s worth mentioning. Curing meat has been done by humans for a long time but this is not something that should be on your plate EVERY day. Make sure you vary your protein sources!

Your challenge: Replace your usual daily sandwich made with deli meat with a big salad loaded with antioxidants and with a more natural source of protein like pastured chicken, free-range organic eggs or wild-caught fish!

#5 – Choose quality red meat.

Although we don’t have any studies comparing the impact of factory meat vs grass-fed meat, we do have studies showing the higher nutritional value of grass-fed meat. I strongly believe that the quality of the red meat you put on your plate matters. By choosing grass-fed and organic, you avoid the antibiotic residues, the GMOs typically used in their feeds, and all the pesticide residues (including glyphosate/RoundUp). You even get a bonus of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), an important fat well-known for its anti-cancer properties that cows can produce in high amounts when eating their ideal diet of grass.

Your challenge: Make sure your red meat comes from pastured / grass-fed animals!

#6 – Be smart when cooking your meat.

Cooking meat at high temperatures cause the formation of heterocyclic amine and aromatic hydrocarbon which could be why red meat is associated with higher risk of cancer. You know these compounds are present if your meat has grilled marks or is charred.

Your challenge: Cook your meat at lower temperatures or even in liquids (think soups & stews) to minimize caramelization. Using marinades (especially if it contains turmeric!) can also help reduce the formation of these harmful compounds.

#7 – Vary your protein sources.

Variety IS important with everything and your plate is no exception! Plan your meals with different types of protein besides red meat, such as wild-caught fish and seafood as well as pastured poultry. Wild meat is usually not categorized w (ith red meat and therefore offer many other protein options for your meals, including bison/buffalo, venison, wild boar, rabbit, etc.

Your challenge: Vary your protein sources by including at least 2-3 meals of wild-caught fish & seafood and a few meals of pastured poultry and wild game every week.

#8 – Add prebiotics to your plate.

Prebiotics are food for your gut flora.  A study showing that consuming 300 g (10 oz) of red meat daily was associated with the presence of pre-cancerous compounds in the stools also showed that adding 40 g of prebiotic fibers a day was enough to make these pre-cancerous markers disappear completely! You can find prebiotic fiber, also known as resistant starch (RS), in potato starch (a powder you can use as a supplement), in green bananas and plantains, as well as in potatoes and other starchy foods that are cooked and then refrigerated overnight before being eaten.

Your challenge: Eat a source of prebiotic fiber at each meal or supplement with 1-2 tablespoons of potato starch a day!

#9 – Minimize stress.

Stress plays a BIG role in the development of many chronic diseases, including cancer. It is important to take reports and studies seriously but we can’t lose it every time the medias share new studies like this one. It’s not the first and it is likely not the last! Breathe deeply, read this article again and find strategies to minimize stress in your life.

Your challenge: Try yoga, adult colouring books, meditation, deep belly breathing, walking outside in nature, spend time with a pet or music to better control your daily stress. For these strategies to work, you can’t use them once a month… you need to use them daily! Just like bathing!

Do you still eat red meat and bacon?

I certainly eat processed meat like bacon and prosciutto once in a while. Sometimes not for many months and sometimes a few times in the same week. I also eat red meat almost every day, but always from grass-fed & pastured animals. But I also avoid all flours, sugars and processed foods while making sure I fill at least half of my plate with an abundance of colorful vegetables. 🙂

What about YOU?

Are you changing anything about your red meat consumption after hearing about the WHO report or reading my article here?

I want to hear form you!

Please share your answer in the comments below!

References:

  1. The New York Times. Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk, WHO Report Finds. Octobre 2015.
  2. Arafa MA, et aDietary and lifestyle characteristics of colorectal cancer in Jordan: a case-control study. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. (2011)
  3. Le Leu RK, et al. Butyrylated starch intake can prevent red meat-induced O6-methyl-2-deoxyguanosine adducts in human rectal tissue : a randomized clinical trial. Br J Nutr. 2015; 114(2): 220-30.
  4. Moreno-Smith M, et al. Impact of stress on cancer metastasis. Future Oncol. 2010; 6(12): 1863-81.