Every week it seems there's more information about something else we can't eat. As quickly as the media put another 'super food' on a pedestal they brand another food as bad for us or even a cause of illness. Meat has been mentioned a number of times and has now sparked a renewed interest in veganism. So what's wrong with eating meat?
So what's the real story here?
The World Health Organisation says that eating 50g of processed meat daily will increase your chances of developing colorectal cancer. Meanwhile, it said red meats are "probably carcinogenic" but there was limited evidence. The W.H.O. is concerned about processed meat which includes bacon, sausages, hot dogs, salami, corned beef, beef jerky and ham as well as canned and meat-based sauces. These have been modified to either extend their shelf life or change the taste. The main methods are smoking, curing, or adding salt or preservatives. This is not really new news as Nitrates, the preservatives used in ham, bacon and pâtés have long been recognised as carcinogenic (cancer forming).
Smoking, curing and pickling of foods have also previously been linked to increasing the risk of bowel cancers. This is due to chemicals taken in by the meat from the smoking process and high amounts of salt used in curing. Fresh burgers made from minced beef or quality sausages made with natural ingredients are not classed as processed. However today’s report also says that red meats (beef, lamb and pork) may too cause cancer. The suggested reason for this is to do with the way that the red pigment in the blood is broken down in our gut. This forms chemicals which can damage the gut wall. Furthermore it has been known for some time that cooking meats at high temperatures (such as on a barbeque) can create carcinogenic chemicals.
According to the most recent studies the risk of developing colorectal (bowel) cancer from consumption of processed meat is small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed. The studies suggest that 21% of bowel cancers (3% of all cancers) are caused by processed or red meat. Compare this to smoking where studies show that 86% of lung cancers (19% of all cancers) are caused by tobacco and you can see that eating meat is definitely less bad for you than smoking but still a reason for concern.
The World Health Organisation did stress that meat also had health benefits. Red meat is high in protein and is a major source of iron, zinc and vitamin B12.
Another strong consideration is the quality of the meat you are eating. It has been shown that meat from animals which have been intensively reared on a diet of maize and soy, has a different fat make up to meat from animals which have been grass fed (free range). The grass fed animals produce meat which has higher levels of omega 3 (anti-inflammatory fats) compared to the meat from intensively reared animals. This means that red meat from grass fed animals causes less inflammation in the body and inflammation is linked to many illnesses including cancer.
Many diets which are high in meat tend to be low in vegetables. This has an effect on the results of studies looking at possible harmful effects of meat. Vegetables are high in anti-oxidants. These are chemicals that can prevent or slow cell damage. So eat red meat but accompany it with generous portions of multi-coloured vegetables. This will help to offset any the effects of chemicals formed when red meat is cooked and digested. Having strong and healthy gut bacteria (by eating a healthy low sugar diet, avoiding medications and supplementing with probiotics) will also encourage safer digestion of red meats. Marinating meats in herbs, spices and lemon juice/vinegar/wine/beer before cooking (and especially before barbequing) has been shown to protect the meat from the harmful effects of cooking. This also supplies more anti-oxidants when the meat is eaten.
In areas of the world where populations live healthily into extended old age meat consumption is low. It's worth bearing this in mind when planning meals. However I do believe that quality meat, including red meat, plays a part in a healthy diet. I advise that all meat consumed should be organic or free range. This is for benefits to our health and for compassion to the animals we are eating. I also advise eating minimal amounts of processed meats. It's not necessary to eat huge amounts of meat. Small quantities can stretch a long way when you add things like veggies, lentils, chickpeas or beans.
In the end it comes down to my usual advice. Eat natural foods, avoid sugar and processed foods, drink water, exercise, be nice to each other and be happy! This is the best way to avoid cancer and live a long and healthy life.