#129 7 Things Meat Lovers Do To Prevent Cancer
Dr. John Day
Dr. Day is a cardiologist specializing in heart rhythm abnormalities at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
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7 Things Meat Lovers Do To Prevent Cancer
Just last week, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) put processed meats in the same category as tobacco and arsenic–known carcinogens. Red meat wasn’t far behind as a probable cause of cancer.
Unfortunately, the media got this story completely wrong. Meat has many key nutrients and the human race has always eaten it–what should meat lovers do?
In this article, I will not only put the latest scientific findings on meat into perspective but I will also share 7 things meat lovers do to help prevent cancer.
Where Did This Report Come From?
Processed and red meats have long been associated with heart disease, cancer, and premature death. Given the vast amount of scientific data available, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) brought together 22 leading scientists from 10 countries to carefully review the 800 best medical studies looking at the health effects of meat.
These 800 studies came from many different countries, different cultures, and different ways of preparing meat. Based on this careful review of the best science available, these cancer scientists labelled processed meats as clearly carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic.
Can We Trust the Science?
Rather than just believe what the W.H.O. is telling us, I’ve begun personally reviewing many of the 800 studies included in this report. Based on my review of the scientific data, the research team did include high quality studies. However, nutritional science is a very imperfect science.
The biggest limitation in my mind is that meat lovers are much more likely to have other unhealthy behaviors like not exercising and eating more junk food. While researchers try to account for this in scientific studies, it is possible that they could not fully correct for this. Thus, it may not be the meat but rather the lifestyle choices of meat lovers that causes cancer.
Meat Contains Key Nutrients
When discussing the health effects of meat, we can’t forget that meat contains many critical nutrients like vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. When you look at the history of the human race, we probably would not have survived in ancient times if meat was not available.
In fact, before the days of synthetic vitamins, the only real source of vitamin B12 was meat. Thus, one could argue that we were genetically designed to eat meat.
What Are Processed Meats?
As processed meats have now been put into the same camp as tobacco and arsenic when it comes to cancer, what exactly are processed meats? The W.H.O. has defined processed meats as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation.” Everyday examples of processed meats include ham, deli meats, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, and pepperoni.
What is Red Meat?
While the pork industry would like us to believe that pork is the “other white meat,” the W.H.O. doesn’t see things that way. Once again, according to the W.H.O., red meat is defined as “beef, pork, veal, lamb, mutton, horse, or goat meat.”
How Does Meat Cause Cancer?
Scientists aren’t 100% sure what makes processed and red meat cancerous but they have some pretty good ideas. Chief among these are N-nitroso-compounds (NOC), commonly labelled as nitrites, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and heterocyclic aromatic amines (HAA) which are formed from processing and cooking meats.
In the case of NOC (AKA nitrites), this toxic chemical directly damages the cells lining the gut. As the cells in the gut are constantly dividing, if NOC alters the DNA of the cell then this DNA mutation will be passed on to new cells and tumors can develop.
Does the Dose Determine the Risk?
Alternatively, maybe the cancer risk is all related to the dose. While not mentioned in this W.H.O. report, perhaps there is a small dose of processed or red meat that is safe to eat.
For those who like an occasional processed or red meat treat, you may be just fine. The people in the meat cancer studies really ate a lot of meat.
For example, from these 800 studies, the average dose of red meat was 50 to 100 grams daily. To put that in perspective, that is the equivalence of eating a quarter pounder hamburger every day for your entire life.
What is Your Risk of Cancer?
As mentioned, you really have to eat a lot of processed and red meats each day to significantly increase your cancer risk. Specifically, when it comes to red meat, the cancer risk is increased by just 17% for every 100 grams of red meat you eat each day. Thus, eating that 100 gram quarter pounder burger every day, for the rest of your life, will only bump your cancer risk by 17%.
In contrast, it takes much less processed meat to increase your cancer risk. Just eating 50 grams, which works out to be two strips of bacon, one deli sandwich, one slice of ham, one sausage, one hot dog, or one slice of pepperoni pizza each day, will increase your cancer risk by 18%. Thus, if you like bacon for breakfast, a deli sandwich for lunch, and a slice of ham for dinner every day, for the rest of your life, you have just increased your cancer risk by 54%.
The Media Got it Wrong
While the cancer risks of processed and red meat sound “big,” this is just your relative risk not your absolute risk of getting cancer. In absolute terms, worldwide there will be 34,000 extra cancer deaths this year from processed and red meats. These 34,000 “meat deaths” can in no way compare to the number one carcinogen, tobacco, which will cause one million people to die this year.
To look at this relative risk in a different way, the Cancer Risk UK organization estimates that for every 100 cases of cancer in the UK, just 3 of these 100 cases could have been prevented by not eating processed or red meats. As you can plainly see, while the relative risk may have seemed big in the media reports, the absolute risk of getting cancer from processed and red meats is really quite small.
What Cancers Do You Get From Meat?
The biggest cancer risk from processed and red meats is clearly colon cancer. This is likely because what is left of the meat from the digestion process sits for a long time in your colon.
In addition to colon cancer, there also seems to be a link between processed and red meats and cancer of the pancreas, stomach, and prostate. Thus, if any of these cancers run in your family you may want to significantly back on processed and red meats.
Are Wild and Organic Meats Safer?
The studies reviewed by the W.H.O. generally included meat raised by modern agriculture techniques which means lots of antibiotics and hormones, industrial grain feed, and unhealthy animal living conditions.
It is possible that red meat, when raised responsibly, has no increased risk of cancer. Unfortunately, there are no good studies to prove or disprove this theory.
Do Fish and Poultry Cause Cancer?
While processed and red meat have consistently been linked to cancer, the same does not apply to other meats. Indeed, from one of the 800 studies used in this W.H.O. report, researchers found that fish actually decreases your risk of cancer. Other studies have shown that fish has a neutral cancer risk.
The scientific data for poultry are also not clear. Some studies suggest a slight increased cancer risk, others neutral, and still others report that it may weakly prevent cancer.
My take on reviewing these studies is that fish is probably neutral to beneficial when it comes to cancer risk and that poultry is probably just neutral with regards to cancer risk.
How Much Protein Do You Need?
When I suggest to patients that they may want to cut back on their meat, they usually ask “how will I get my protein?” Perhaps the first question is how much protein do you need?
General nutrition guidelines recommend 1 gram of protein for every kilogram you weigh. To find out your weight in kilograms, just divide your weight in pounds by 2.2.
Personally, I shoot for 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram to keep my hunger in check and to make sure my body has enough protein to build muscle mass. I personally use the free version of Lose It! on my iPhone to track my daily protein intake.
Non Meat Protein Sources?
While my patients know that dairy is also high in protein, many are not aware that there is also a lot of protein from plants. For example, beans, lentils, peas, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and whole grains can also be high in protein.
For example, 200 calories of spinach has 27 grams of protein which is about the same amount of protein in 200 calories of a steak. Of course, 200 calories of spinach would be so much food it would require three heaping plates. Regardless, calorie for calorie, spinach has the same amount of protein as a steak.
One important thing to remember with plant based sources of protein is that not all of these proteins are complete proteins. What this means is that these individual protein sources may be missing one or two key amino acids. Thus, you have to combine a legume with say nuts, seeds, or a whole grain for it to equal a complete protein.
What Can You Do to Lower Your Cancer Risk?
If you love processed and red meats is there anything you can do to neutralize your cancer risk? When it comes to colon cancer, fiber seems to be especially helpful in preventing cancer. In one study, those who ate the most fiber lowered their cancer risk by 27%. The foods highest in fiber are fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Also, when it comes to cancer prevention you cannot forget about the protective effects of exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. For example, 1 in 10 colon cancers are due from not getting enough exercise. Likewise, 10% of colon cancers are due to being overweight . These cancer risks are much larger than eating processed or red meats.
Should You Stop Eating Meat?
Based on this report, should you go vegetarian? No. All this report tells you is that if you are on a meat heavy diet you may want to cut back and shift more of your daily protein intake to fish, poultry, or plant based sources.
Having said that, I must admit that since this W.H.O. report came out it is now much harder for me to eat meat. Personally, I have never really enjoyed the taste of meat other than an occasional great burger. While I no longer eat processed or red meat, I do encourage myself to eat wild salmon once or twice a week as part of a healthy diet.
7 Things Meat Lovers Do To Prevent Cancer
I need to point out that even if you give up processed and red meats and do everything listed below you could still get cancer. All you can do is lower your risk. Below are 7 things meat lovers do to prevent cancer.
1. Processed Meats Should Be a Rare Treat
As the cancer link to processed meats is highest, if you love meat and are frightened by cancer, then make processed meats a very rare treat. If you just cannot live without deli meats, ham, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, or pepperoni then look for organic varieties that are nitrite free. While we don’t know if the organic nitrite free varieties are any safer, at least you can feel better knowing you have done everything possible to lower your cancer risk of your favorite treats.
2. Eat Organic or Wild Meats
The vast majority of the studies looking at the cancer risk of meat included “modern meats” from animals treated with lots of hormones and antibiotics, who were fed industrial grains, and were confined to crowded living conditions. While there are no studies to prove this, it is very possible that eating red meat the way our ancestors once did, wild and naturally organic, may not increase your cancer risk at all.
3. Cook Meat Safely
As with modern livestock techniques, it is possible that the cancer risk of processed and red meats is entirely due to how the meat is prepared. For example, cooking at high temperatures in the pan or on the grill may be the reason why the cancer risk is increased. To minimize your red meat cancer risk, try slow cooking or boiling your meat as part of a stew.
4. Eat Meat No More than 1-2 Times Per Week
Probably the best way meat lovers can reduce their risk is to just cut back. For example, the average red meat eater in cancer studies ate up to 100 grams daily which is the equivalent of eating a quarter pounder burger every day. Thus, to lower your cancer risk, try eating meat just one or two times a week.
5. Eat More Fish and Poultry
As there are no clear scientific data linking fish or poultry to cancer, try switching from processed and red meats to fish or poultry. In fact, many studies even suggest a lower cancer risk from fish.
6. Eat More Plant-Based Protein
Contrary to popular belief, legumes, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are also excellent sources of protein. For example, 200 calories of spinach has just as many grams of protein as 200 calories of a steak. One thing to remember is that plant based sources of protein may not be a complete protein so you have to mix your protein sources to get all of the amino acids your body needs.
7. Fiber, Exercise, and Maintain a Healthy Weight
Of all the cancer lowering techniques listed in this article, the very best way to lower your risk of colon cancer is simply to focus on the basics. Ensure you are eating enough fiber, exercise daily, and maintain a healthy weight.
Each of these three things individually can effectively erase any increased cancer risk from processed and red meats. If you can do all three then your colon cancer risk will really be quite low. Great sources of fiber include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
How has this W.H.O. report calling out processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic affected what you eat? Please share your thoughts and comments below.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.
I really enjoy these weekly commentaries from Dr. Day, but this one about the risk of meat was especially interesting. Keep them coming. I usually end up reading most of them aloud to my wife. I read the one about clutter twice!
Thank you so much for your kind words!!!
Your review helps a great deal. But as a vegetarian how do I get B12?
As the only reliable natural sources of B12 come from meat or dairy, as a vegetarian you may need to supplement to get enough B12. This could come from fortified foods or supplements. Hope this helps! John
This study (and your comments) confirms the wisdom of what we were taught in your original a-fib group almost 2 years ago. We have been following this plan (very little red and processed meat) ever since. In fact we have almost lost our taste for red meat altogether.
So glad to hear you are still doing well! Thank you so much for leaving a comment!
Thanks for addressing the meat studies. I have been waiting for your response to them. Realism trumps sensationalism.
Thank you so much for your kind comments!!!
Excellent advice! Good to hear a logical approach to the red and processed meat articles. It is often said that we have too many reporters and not enough news.
As always, MODERATION! The article on clutter was spot on…it does cause stress and frustration. Not to speak of dust….
Thank you for the salad dressing recipe, Jane. I will try that.
Thank you so much for your kind words! So glad to hear the Newsletter is helpful to you!
Is this a typo in item #1 where you use nitrite and then introduce nitrates? Obviously they refer to different classes of compounds, i.e. the valence state of nitrogen has changed from 3 to 5 or if you will a salt of nitrous versus nitric acid.
s the cancer link to processed meats is highest, if you love meat and are frightened by cancer, then make processed meats a very rare treat. If you just cannot live without deli meats, ham, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, or pepperoni then look for organic varieties that are nitrite free. While we don’t know if the organic nitrate free varieties are any safer, at least you can feel better knowing you have done everything possible to lower your cancer risk of your favorite treats.
Thanks for pointing this out.
Thanks for the great review. This is a well balanced perspective on eating well.