Does Red Meat Really Cause Cancer?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
For the record, let me just state that I am currently sitting in my kitchen, writing this blog, and watching the Simmental cows and calves graze on lush, green pasture land outside my deck window.  Yes, many of those calves will end up as retail cuts of beef.  Yes, I eat beef.  Yes, I am a farm girl, and have been since my birth over 50 years ago. So I was somewhat concerned that red meat (beef, pork and lamb) has been recently cited as a major risk factor in increased death due to diseases such as heart disease and cancer.  But before you throw up your hands in frustration and start shaking your finger at the food police, read on.

What the Study Reported: The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, reported that red meat, and particularly processed meat, increases the risk of cancer and heart disease.  This prospective observational study (1980-2008) assessed the eating habits of 37,698 men and 83,644 females every four years, using a food frequency questionnaire.   Subjects were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer at the beginning of the study.  The researchers tracked the participants for several decades and documented the onset of diseases and death.   Lead author, Frank Hu from the Harvard School of Public Health, reports staggering statistics from the study.  Participants who consumed about one serving of red meat per day had a 13% increased risk of mortality when compared to those who were eating little meat.  The biggest concern was with processed meat, which increased risk of death and disease by 20%.  Processed meats include items such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, brats, metts, and luncheon meats.  Hu estimated that substituting one serving per day of alternative protein-rich foods, such as fish, poultry, nuts, legumes or lowfat dairy for red meat and processed meat could decrease mortality risk by 7-19%. 

Putting It All Into Perspective: It is important to point out that this is an observational study, not an experimental study.  This means that the study looked at what people reported eating (or remembered eating) every 4 years, for approximately 25 years, and the correlation to disease.  This study did not control the participant’s daily diet, food choices, nutrient intakes, exercise habits, weight, etc.  Well-designed observational studies, as this one is, only ''point'' in the direction of health risks and possible ways to improve health.

The Steps to Take:  The take-home message from this study is one that you've probably heard before: It's all about moderation and variety.  That’s right folks…good ole moderation and variety. Red meats, like beef, pork and lamb should not be demonized.  They are rich in protein, zinc, iron, vitamin B-12, selenium, vitamin B-6, and thiamin. You can still incorporate these meats into a healthy diet, using the following guidelines:
  • Take a quick inventory of the protein-rich foods that you are consuming.  If all you are seeing day after day is beef, pork, lamb and more beef…it may be time for a little more variety in your protein sources. Include poultry, chicken, turkey, fish, seafood, low-fat milk products, beans, lentils, legumes, soy products, nuts and seeds.
  • Remember, a platter of meat is not one serving; rather, the general nutrition guideline is to fill only a 1/4 section of your 9-inch diameter plate with a protein-rich food.  That’s about a 4-ounce cooked portion.
  • Red meats can easily stay on your plate several times throughout the week when using a 4-ounce cooked portion.  If you are looking for specific numbers, I suggest an upper limit of about 5 servings of red meat per week.
  • If you are in need of specific entrée ideas for alternative protein sources, try:  fish tacos, veggie and cheese lasagna, bean burgers, ground turkey chili, or BBQ grilled chicken breasts.
  • View processed meats as flavorings, condiments or garnishes rather than as main entrées.  Look for bacon and deli meats without added nitrites to lower cancer risk. 
  • Remember to safely cook your meat to prevent the production of chemical compounds that may increase cancer risk.  Select lean cuts of meat and trim all visible fat.  Marinate the meat when possible; this sets up a barrier against the heat and lowers the production of cancerous compounds.  Use a lower grilling temperature and place the grill rack or broiler pan at the highest setting, away from the heat source.  Remove the food from the heat source as soon as it is cooked.   Avoid eating any blackened or charred food.
There is no need to feel the need to say good-bye to your long-term friendship with beef, pork or lamb. I know I’m not.  However, it is time to meet and greet your meat with common-sense portion control and to include a variety of protein-rich foods in your diet.

What are your plans for consuming beef, pork and lamb?  Do you plan to cut back on your use of hot dogs, brats, metts, and sausages this summer?