Meat Consumed: Healthy Eating Choices for Your Family
Over the past few weeks, we have been inundated by headlines proclaiming processed meat is just as carcinogenic as smoking, and red meat is probably harmful, too. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), part of the World Health Organization (WHO), placed processed meats in the same category as tobacco, asbestos and diesel fumes, claiming it had sufficient evidence to link it to colorectal cancer.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been questioning whether to order a hamburger or pick up some smoked turkey from my local deli since the report was released last month. The findings are alarming, but nutritionists say they need to be taken with a grain of salt.
“We need to put things in perspective and try to see that, in comparison with the other risks out there, this is much less,” said Dr. Rajavel Elango, a nutrition researcher with the Child and Family Research Institute.
Yes, processed meat is now considered an established carcinogen. However, everything in that category should not be considered as equally dangerous. According to the Global Burden of Disease Project, an independent academic research organization, approximately one million deaths can be attributed to tobacco smoke every year, and more than 200,000 a year to air pollution. Compare that with about 34,000 deaths linked to diets high in processed meats.
Eating red meat has not yet been established as a cause of cancer; however, researchers estimate it could be responsible for about 50,000 cancer deaths a year.
The risk of cancer generally increased with the amount of meat consumed. The report analyzed data from 10 different studies. It estimated every 50-gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 per cent.
The very nature of processed meats is where the problem lies. Preservation techniques, such as salting, curing or smoking, form carcinogenic chemical compounds including N-nitroso compounds and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Those compounds also appear when red meat is overcooked, especially when it comes in direct contact with a flame or hot surface such as a barbeque or grill.
“The first thing is to not panic,” said Dr. Elango. “Nutrition in food is ultimately always about balance and moderation. Do not change your dietary patterns dramatically due to what you read in the media, but rather get sound advice.”
Dr. Elango says it is best to restrict red and processed meats, but you do not have to avoid them all together.
Canada's Food Guide offers advice on how people of all ages can eat a healthy, balanced diet. For example, it recommends children under the age of eight eat one portion (up to 75 grams) of meat or meat-alternatives, such as legumes, eggs and nuts, a day; older kids can have up to two portions. While the guide suggests up to three portions a day for adult males, Dr. Elango says every meal should not include meat.
“Saying that people shouldn’t be eating meat is the wrong advice to give,” said Dr. Elango. “People should still be aware that if you do not eat red meat then your iron consumption will be low; you need to be getting your nutrients, especially iron and zinc, from other sources. It’s best to include a variety of food sources in moderate amounts.”