It seems like everyone is talking about the dangers of eating processed food and red meat. People are asking “what is safe to eat anymore?” Let us try to summarize the issue here.
What is the problem with red meat and processed food?
An international panel organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) issued an announcement that eating processed meats (like ham, bacon, and hot dogs) is “carcinogenic to humans”. This means that the agency is certain, after analyzing the results of many research studies, that eating processed meats definitely increases the risk of cancer. The cancer most associated is colorectal cancer, one of the most common types, as well as prostate and pancreatic cancer. The report concluded that eating other red meats (not processed) “probably” raises the risk of cancer.
What qualifies as unprocessed meat?
The Lancet article defines red meat as unprocessed (fresh or frozen) mammalian muscle meat, including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat.
What qualifies as processed meat?
Processed meat is meat “that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation”. Again this includes bacon, ham, hot dogs, as well as foods such as mortadella, chicken nuggets, cured beef, salami, and dried meats.
Why did this come out now?
The idea that red and processed meat increases the risk of cancer is not new. We have discussed this many times here, but this new WHO warning got wide attention from the media. The fact that the agency put processed meat into the same carcinogenic category as cigarettes seemed to alarm many people.
How risky are eating these foods?
It is important to note that while processed meat is in the same carcinogenic category as cigarettes, the agency emphasizes “this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous.” That is, cigarettes are many times more carcinogenic, or riskier, than eating processed meats.
The WHO estimates that eating 50 grams daily of processed meat, or 100 grams daily of red meat, would increase your risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 percent.
Why are these foods carcinogenic?
The problem with red meat itself is not so much the meat, but the cooking process causes potentially carcinogenic substances to form, such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. In general, the higher the temperature that the meat is cooked, the more of these carcinogenic substances are formed. Grilling, especially grilling meat to a “well done” or charred state is especially harmful.
Processed meats are carcinogenic because the process of adding chemicals to the meat changes the meat in a way that produces carcinogenic substances. These substances can damage our DNA, which increases the risk of cancer.
What should I do to stay safe?
-if you eat meat, try to substitute more poultry (unprocessed), and even better—fish—than red meat in your diet. Instead of buying packaged chicken (that might have added chemicals), buy fresh or frozen chicken and use in place of the packaged products.
-minimize consumption of processed meats
-minimize eating meats that have been cooked at high temperature, such as at a barbecue
-especially if you do eat meat and processed meat, make sure you do other things with your life and diet that seem to decrease your risk of cancer (and counteract the effects of meat), such as: avoiding obesity, exercising regularly, not sitting too long, eat lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and legumes; and of course, don’t smoke or don’t drink more than 2 alcohol drinks per day (for a man) or 1 drink per day (for a woman).
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