November 23, 2015
Processed meat is now officially considered a carcinogen, along the lines of DDT, Glyphosate(Round up), and Malathion which are herbicides and pesticides also considered likely to cause cancer. At least that is what the World Health Organization 's International Agency for Research on Cancer said in an October position statement that can be found in the journal Lancet Oncology in October. This group is made up of 22 experts in the field of cancer and biology from 10 countries around the world.
I do not know about you, but I love meat and this research can be a little distressing. So what is the whole story?
The two classes of meat discussed in the article are: 1) processed meats and 2) red meat. Processed meats are those meats that are processed in some way to preserve the meat. This includes salting, smoking, curing and adding chemicals. Think salami and bologna. Red meat is basically meat derived from the muscle of a cow, pig, bison, goat, deer, sheep, horse, etc...
The findings of the study were that processed meat is classified as having sufficient evidence to be a carcinogen. This means that consumption of any amount can alter your cell's DNA in a bad way. Red meat is classified as probably carcinogenic to humans based on limited evidence that it directly causes cancer but there is strong mechanistic evidence to support the association. In other words, we don't have proof, but it looks likely to be true.
The authors noted that if you consume 50 grams or 1.7 ounces of processed meat daily you have an 18% increased risk of colon cancer during your lifetime. This notion hit home as my father had colon cancer and my gene pool seems very close to his.
Ok, now I am depressed and asking for a lifeline. My training in integrative medicine clearly taught me that we are supposed to eat meat. For crying out loud, we have canine teeth and are omnivores!
What does the science say? First, lets look at processed meats.
Processed meats often have chemicals known as nitrates in them that are either added or occur naturally. They also have natural heme iron. In your mouth and stomach, heme iron catalyzes a reaction with the nitrite and produces carcinogenic N-nitroso compounds. Heme iron can also react with poly unsaturated fatty acids like soybean oil or corn oil in the intestines making reactive oxygen radicals that are very damaging to our cells.
All meats are an issue when charred at high heat! The process of heating the meat to such high temperatures produces polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic amines. Both chemicals are known to damage our DNA. According to Dr. David Katz at the Yale School of Public Health, " Once your talking about DNA damage, that's the origin of cancer."
Now, I will give you my opinion based on the available literature.
The biggest problem with a study like this is the demonization of a food class. It is clear to me that red meat and processed meat consumption carries with it some risk of cancer of the GI tract. Now based on the research this risk is primarily based on daily consumption, for which I do not advocate!
I truly believe that we were meant to eat meat.
If you look at the Blue Zones by Dan Buettner, these studied humans lived to over a hundred years old and they consumed meat. What they did was follow a rational meat consumption plan. Not daily! They ate a predominantly vegetarian based diet.
The other major issue with meat consumption is that depending on the makeup of your gut flora and the other foods that you consume, your risks will go up or down. We know that a high fiber diet is associated with a decreased risk of cancer. We know that some micronutrients like Vitamin C can block the conversion of nitrates to N-nitrosamines, the bad guys. Our cells DNA can also be protected by adding spices like turmeric, ginger and garlic to our meals.
Intermittent fasting and mild blood ketosis is known to protect against cancer by inducing apoptosis of cancer cells, otherwise called programmed cell death. There is some very exciting early research occurring in the cancer literature on how to induce apoptosis in your body every year and thus reduce your risk of cancer over time by fasting. Dr. Dom D'Agostino has championed this approach.
My favorite topic, the gut microbiome, is the key. Eating a predominantly plant based diet will feed your good bacteria and they will thrive at the expense of the ones that we do not want. The good bacteria then become cell protectors and anti cancer in our gut.
What I boil it all down to is this: 1) I believe the data to be true. There is a direct link to cancer as laid out in the science. 2) It is volume related 3) There are ways to mitigate the effects
What to do:
1) Eat a predominantly plant based diet
2) Eat red and processed meat infrequently and always as God intended it - grass fed and hormone free
3) Fast intermittently - try fasting overnight for 12 hours to start
4) Take a high quality probiotic as directed by your provider or consume fermented foods
5) Consume spices like ginger, basil, turmeric, garlic daily
6) Consume lots of natural fiber to help with digestion and to promote good gut flora
7) Don't char your meat when grilling
8) Avoid added nitrites and nitrates where possible
9) Drink lots of water to flush your system
10) Sweat often and profusely to remove toxins from your body