The debate has been raging for years, but has recently had fuel thrown onto it by the World Health Organisation (WHO), who have declared meat – particularly processed products such as sausages – as carcinogenic, placing them in the same category as cigarettes and asbestos. Although the WHO has specified that placing these compounds in the same category does not mean they hold the same risk, the announcement was enough to reduce sausage sales in the UK and throw people into confusion everywhere about whether they should be ditching the meat altogether. Want some answers? Then read on….
Briefly, let’s look at why the WHO declared meat carcinogenic in the first place. To determine this, they looked at 3 things:-
- Biochemistry (does exposure lead to cancer?) – they thought this evidence was moderate, but more on this later
- Animal testing – they found no evidence that feeding red meat to animals caused cancer
- Epidemiological evidence – large population studies comparing diet to incidents of cancer
The one variable that changes everything about how the body metabolises and processes meat is….VEGETABLES!
Where the WHO found a direct causal link between meat and cancer (point number 1 above), they were ONLY looking at this, rather than taking into consideration factors such as simultaneous vegetable intake. Meat may cause cancer if eaten in abundance and with no vegetables alongside, but vegetables have been shown to dramatically reduce this risk.
The link between eating too much meat and an increased chance of cancer disappears once the results are adjusted to take into account vegetable consumption. Many of the harmful components of meat which have been linked to cancers are completely counteracted by the protective compounds found in plants foods. Here’s how…
This prevents harmful substances being produced from the digestion of haem (where the iron is) in meats. This has been shown in research, where giving mice spinach with their haem completely reversed the pro-cancer effects – so eat some salad with that steak!
Indoles are phytochemicals found in the cruciferous family – broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts and cabbage – and are amazing at protecting the body against the harmful products created by high-heat cooking – well documented in the media backlash against barbeques. When meat chars, harmful compounds are formed which have been linked to cancer. But indoles alter the metabolism of these harmful meat compounds. Good news for broccoli lovers!
Vegetables also contain powerful chemicals that regulate and control inflammation in a number of ways and we now know that inflammation is the starting point for all cancers (and for all disease). So eating vegetables with every meal is not just something your mum tells you to do for no reason. Making sure your plate is well balanced – with ½ of it made up of fresh vegetables or salad – should go a long way in protecting you from the potential harm from meat.
Now to point number 3. In fact, the lifetime risk of colon cancer in the population as a whole (veggies and meat-eaters) is less than 4.5%. The risk for meat-eaters is 5.3% – just 0.8% more. Even the WHO officially state that “The…evidence for an association with eating red meat and for colorectal cancer is limited.” They also completely ignored evidence from two large trials that studied the connection between red meat and cancer and found no evidence in either trial for increased cancer in meat eaters. Hardly enough weight to place sausages alongside tobacco, some might say….
So the main point that has been completely passed over by almost everyone who has written about it is, what counts for health and in particular, cancer, is HOW we consume meat – not meat in itself.
And what about cured meats? These really need a blog of their own, as there are different elements to consider than with fresh. Cured meats really should only be eaten occasionally and in moderation, as they almost all contain preservatives in the form of nitrate or nitrite salts. These may be converted into harmful nitrosamines in the body but again, vitamin C, found naturally in all vegetables, inhibits this conversion, which is another great reason why fresh fruits or vegetables should also always be consumed alongside preserved meats.
There is also something available called green hams, which are smoked without the use of ANY preservatives at all. This sounds like a great option for this Christmas, served alongside a large portion of fresh, crunchy, green salad.
The take home message is – don’t push aside that lettuce leaf that comes with your burger and always eat a good portion of vegetables with your meat!