My doubts about Zimbabwean love for meat all but disappeared earlier this year when the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organisation (WHO), released a statement announcing that processed meat causes cancer and red meat may cause cancer. In my circles, friends voiced their utter dismay, disapproval and disdain with some pledging allegiance to their favorite meats while a handful contemplated vegetarianism. It was evident from the numerous conversations that meat, in all its various forms, was not about to disappear from the Zimbabwean diet.
But, what was the IARC’s announcement and how does it impact the average person striving for better health?
Upon reviewing over 800 published studies, 22 professionals from 10 countries concluded that there was enough evidence to classify processed meat as causing cancer in humans thus listing it as a Group 1 carcinogen. The same panel listed red meat as a Group 2A carcinogen meaning that it probably causes cancer in humans. Placing in Group 1, associates processed meats with established cancer causing substances such as asbestos, alcohol and tobacco. However, this does not necessarily mean that eating processed meat is just as dangerous as using tobacco. Carcinogenic classifications are based on whether something causes cancer or not. Group 1 has the greatest strength of evidence and items listed in this group definitely cause cancer. Items classified in Group 4 have the weakest level of evidence and are generally not known to cause cancer. The Cancer Research UK indicates that 21percent of bowel cancer is related to the consumption red and processed meat compared to the 86 percent of cancer related to tobacco use. Therefore, although they are in the same classification, their risk is not the same.
What are red meat and processed meats?
WHO classifies all muscle meat including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, goat and horse as red meat. A limited body of evidence links red meat to colorectal, prostrate and pancreatic cancer.
Processed meats are any meats that have been modified to improve taste or shelf life through smoking, salting, curing, fermenting, canning and other methods. They are not just limited to red meats but could include processed poultry and possibly fish. Commonly consumed processed meats include hot dogs, ham, sausages, bacon, canned meat, polony and biltong. Studies link processed meats with colon and possibly stomach cancer.
How do red meat and/or processed meats cause cancer?
Studies on how these foods cause cancer are still underway but scientists at the American Institute for Cancer Research theorize that carcinogens form when nitrates are added to meats and when Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH’s) and Heterocyclic Amines (HCA’s) form when meats are smoked or cooked at high temperatures. They also hypothesize that the heme iron found in red meat may damage the lining of the colon.
Should you stop eating red or processed meat?
The good news for meat lovers is that all foods can fit as part of an overall healthy diet. Red meat is a great source of protein and essential nutrients such as zinc, vitamin B12, and iron. Moderation and balance are key!
The IARC indicates that eating about 50g of processed meat yields an 18 percent higher chance for developing colorectal cancer and consuming 100g of red meat increases risk by 17 percent. So, you can enjoy small portions of both processed and red meats but since processed meats have been identified as a definite cause of cancer, you must further limit their intakes.
Reduce your risk
To minimize health risk due to red and processed meats, incorporate these nutritionist recommended tips for better plates:
- Limit intakes of processed meats such as bacon, sausages, biltong and polony to special occasions.
- Reduce red meat consumption to no more than 2-3 times per week. Rather, include healthy substitutes like fish, poultry and legumes such as beans.
- Watch your portions and when you do consume them, limit serving sizes to no more than 50 grams of processed meat and no more than 100 grams of red meat.
Further reduce your overall cancer risk by:
- Limiting alcoholic beverage intakes
- Adding a wide array of whole grains such as sorghum, millet, straight run maize meal, whole wheat and brown rice
- Enjoying generous servings of colourful fresh fruits and veggies
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Decreasing overall salt intakes
- Being physically active
Here’s to your health!