In just a few weeks, we will be celebrating our country’s independence, having BBQs and spending quality time with family and friends. But as we are celebrating this summer holiday and serving tasty foods such as grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, I think it is important to think about our food choices as what we consume directly affects our health. In particular, I wanted to raise awareness of the health risks of red and processed meats as these are annual favorites for this holiday.
As I’m sure you’ve heard in popular media, these foods get a bad rap, but what most people don’t know is exactly HOW bad they can be for you. So, I wanted to share with you the real facts from scientific research regarding red and processed meats relating to your health.
first, some quick definitions:
Red meat: Refers to unprocessed animal muscle meat such as beef, veal, pork, lamb. This term does not refer to seafood.
Processed meat: Meat that undergoes salting, curing, smoking, fermentation and others to improve taste and shelf life (ie. hot dogs, sausages, bacon, ham, deli meats, beef jerky). Some of these processes result in added compounds that have been found to be carcinogenic – such as N-nitroso compounds (NOC) such as nitrosamines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).
Now, here is a quick review of the scientific literature regarding red and processed meats.
Risk Factors for Heart Disease and Type 2 Diabetes
In a particular study that surveyed over 1 million people and examined to what extent red meats and processed meats negatively impact our health. The study looked specifically at whether or not red meat and/or processed meats were associated with higher levels of coronary heart disease (CHD) and type 2 diabetes (DM2). What they found was quite scary given the amount of meat our society consumes. They found that each daily serving of processed meats appeared to increase the risk of CHD by 42%! Unprocessed red meat was not associated with an increased risk of CHD by itself.
With regards to diabetes, the study was equally damning for processed meats. They found that each daily serving of processed meats increased your risk of diabetes by 19%. Once again, unprocessed red meats did not appear to significantly increase your risk.
Therefore, the main conclusion from this study is that:
– Processed meat appears to be very detrimental to our health by increasing the risk for heart disease as well as diabetes.
– Unprocessed red meat does not seem to carry the same risks.
So, can you get cancer?
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States for men and second most common for women. There are 135,000 new cases each year with nearly 50,000 people dying from this particular cancer in the US alone. A large study revealed that red meat and processed meat both were positively associated with colorectal, colon and rectal cancers.
The results showed that there was a dose-dependent relationship, or in other words, the more red or processed meat you ate the higher your risk was for colorectal cancer. The association was the strongest for processed meats, however red meat also was significantly associated with colon and colorectal cancers. In 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancers (IARC) held a meeting with top scientists to evaluate the carcinogenicity of red meats and processed meats. This group ultimately came down hard and classified processed meats as “carcinogenic to humans” on the basis of colorectal cancer.
They were slightly less strong with red meats labelling them as “probably carcinogenic to humans” for colorectal cancer and also prostate and pancreatic cancers. Some may argue that the IARC evaluations were not based on the “gold standard” randomized controlled trials. However, the data they did evaluate was substantial in size and scope and the findings were so consistent across studies that chance, bias and confounding (which are all risks in scientific studies) were considered to be very unlikely.
I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t indulge in the Fourth of July BBQ and skip the hot dog or hamburger line. However, I do recommend to at least give the negative health consequences some thought. In a society where we were all raised to consume meat and processed meat, my best advice is to cut back on your intake of these foods today and in the future.
Instead of indulging in 2 hotdogs or hamburgers, opt for 1. In the future, it is highly recommended to cut meat and processed meat out of your regular diet, or at the very least, limit them to once every 2-4 weeks or more.