The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently published a report that suggests eating processed red meats falls into the same risk category as smoking cigarettes. The news was all over the press and I was tempted to write up an immediate post, but decided to let the dust settle a bit. We've been down this road many times in the past and typically it causes folks to panic and cut out meat from their diet completely. I want to highlight a few key points.
I recommend you read the IARC's Q&A document regarding processed and red meat if you still have doubts. By the way, processed meats (filled with chemical preservatives and toxic nitrates) and red meats should not be grouped together in the same category as many news reports on this topic have done. They might as well be two completely different foods. In the IARC document, you'll see that there is much uncertainty in their conclusions and when asked “Should I stop eating meat?” they answer “Meat has known health benefits…” So taking the IARC report to mean you should completely cut meat out of your diet is unfounded and even the IARC says to limit, not eliminate intake.
The main problem we see in the clinic with these types of reports is that our typical patient replaces meat servings with plant-deficient empty carbohydrates and as a result, we see their insulin resistance and blood glucose increase, which raises the risk of chronic health conditions like cancer and heart disease. Read my prior post which illustrates how insulin resistance increases cancer risk. In other words, one questionable dietary carcinogen (meat) is being replaced by a more definitive carcinogenic process (insulin resistance), fueled by excess carbohydrates.
Problems With These Reports
Unfortunately the studies used by the IARC do not adequately control for the health risks associated with eating red meat. Typical individuals in these studies consume highly processed, poor quality red meat like the type served at fast food restaurants, slipped between two large buns, cooked in highly inflammatory industrial seed oils also used to make the french fries, and accompanied by a sugar sweetened beverage like soda. In other words, red meat intake is a marker for a multitude of other unhealthy lifestyle habits which we know are carcinogenic.
Eating higher quality, unprocessed meat in moderation surrounded by plants and nutrient dense foods has a completely different effect on the body. For example, the IARC report mentions heme iron as a potential compound in red meat that can cause cancer. However, I cited a study in my prior post on nutrient interactions on how phytonutrients from green vegetables can counteract the cytotoxic (“cell-killing”) effects of heme. Be sure to review this post so you understand the critical concept of how nutrients interact with one another in a beneficial way when meals and snacks are designed properly, in addition to the importance of nutrient quality and sourcing. These are absolutely crucial factors that are not taken into consideration by the IARC.
You may ask me what studies do I have to support the fact that high quality red meat consumed in moderation with abundant nutrient-dense plant based foods mitigates the risks reported by the IARC. To date there are no high quality studies to support this hypothesis and I'm not sure there will be any time in the near future given how challenging and costly it would be to design this type of study. However, multiple populations around the world who consume red meat in the context of a healthy lifestyle enjoy longevity and reduced disease rates.
We also regularly see this effect in our clinic as patients reverse years of chronic health issues like diabetes and cholesterol disorders. Let's focus on a few key highlights that relate to this and future studies.
Don't Overreact to Nutrition News Headlines
Get used to the fact that there will be a report or study coming out every few months about controversial foods and nutrients like red meat, saturated fat, etc. These make great headlines and get lots of attention so the nutrition propaganda machine will continue to spin with conflicting information to leave readers confused. Focus on the fundamentals we've been discussing and follow your numbers (waist size, cholesterol, etc.) and common sense, rather than the latest headline. For more guidance, refer to my book, which outlines exactly which tests to follow and how to interpret your results.
Avoid Poor Quality Meats and Moderate Intake
Don't use positive reports about saturated fats or red meat as an excuse to eat unlimited amounts of red meat or processed meats without regard to quality. You should be eating abundant vegetables with a side of high quality meat rather than the more common pattern of “meat with a small side of vegetables.” I'm a big fan of bowl-style eating with abundant veggies, herbs, spices and delicious sauces, and just a little meat. This works for any type of cuisine (Mexican burrito bowls, Mediterranean bowls, Tandoori bowls, Japanese bowls, etc.). Maybe start replacing some of your dinner plates with dinner bowls to help get you into this habit.
Advice for Vegetarians
Please be sure you and your family are eating enough vegetables. Every meal should contain at least half vegetables and be sure to incorporate more vegetable snacks. My Indian vegetarians in particular are eating a grossly plant-deficient diet and they are experiencing chronic health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, even though they are going no where near red meat or processed meats. Nuts, seeds, abundant plants and high quality dairy are some ways vegetarians can make up for some of the protein, vitamin and micronutrients they are missing from a meat-free diet.
Improve Stress, Sleep and Activity
There is an overwhelming amount of science linking chronic stress and sleep deficiency to every major chronic health condition. Adding low quality meat intake to a background of stress, sleep deprivation and/or inactivity has a cumulative inflammatory and toxic effect on the body. Read my prior posts on stress and exercise for additional guidance.
Be sure to bookmark this post and have it accessible so you can pull it up for the next inevitable headline on the adverse effects of eating red meat!