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This article was published 9/11/2015 (1440 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The idea that eating too many hotdogs, corned beef sandwiches and steaks can cause cancer is nothing new.
But the World Health Organization's recent announcement that these types of meat are carcinogenic — and in the same category as tobacco and asbestos — has sounded loud alarm bells for many meat eaters.
In late October, the WHO's cancer-research arm announced that, after examining more than 800 studies, its experts determined that red meat and processed meat are unmistakably linked to cancer.
More specifically, they called red meat "probably carcinogenic to humans" and processed meat definitely "carcinogenic to humans"
The experts concluded 50 grams of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 per cent.
Red meat, they said, is linked to colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer and prostate cancer. (A possible explantation? The WHO says red meat cooked at high temperatures produces more carcinogenic chemicals — such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heterocyclic aromatic amines.)
The Free Press talked with Gina Sunderland, a registered dietitian with CancerCare Manitoba, about the WHO report. Here's what she had to say (answers have been edited for length and clarity):
FP: Should we be alarmed by the report?
GS: I wasn't, because this info is not new. The WHO did release a global report in 2007 that recommended we limit intake of processed meat and red meat. This is a collaboration of a lot of data that they pulled together from previous studies. That the WHO can repurpose it in a way to make us reconsider how we eat is a good thing. This information is shared globally and makes us pay closer attention to what we're eating.
FP: What does 100 grams of red meat look like?
GS: That would be about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of hand that's not too large. The Canadian Cancer Society already tells us not to exceed 500 grams of red meat in a week. (According to the WHO, red meat includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse and goat).
FP: What does 50 grams of processed meat look like?
GS: Most hotdog wieners are about 50 grams each. So is two or three slices of cooked bacon.
FP: How does the WHO define processed meat?
GS: It's any meat that has been transformed by a process — smoking, curing, salting. Most often what the research links cancer to is when the addition of nitrates is used to preserve the foods to prevent them from spoiling. One of the reasons we've really latched on to these processed meats is that they come packaged and they have a longer shelf life. But when these preservatives get into the digestive tract, they are converted into these other compounds, which have an increased association with cancer.
FP: Does smoked fish such as lox have the same type of carcinogens?
GS: Yes. Certain smoking processes will introduce tar into the fish.
FP: Do you advise your patients to eat red meat?
GS: They are undergoing cancer treatment, so we want to ensure they are getting adequate amounts of protein to assist with tissue repair. But there are so many other ways to get protein besides red and processed meat.
Examples include fibre-rich legumes, eggs, nut, seeds, Greek yogurt.
FP: What about the recent study that just came out in the Lancet that suggests lowering carbohydrate consumption and increasing fat consumption can lead to weight loss?
GS: That research is definitely out there. Adequate amounts of essential healthy good fats, increases in fibre and other protein-rich options such as nuts and seeds would give your body good and healthy fats. That imparts feelings of fullness and satiety that makes us eat less.
FP: How should we change the way we eat?
GS: Instead of eating an eight-ounce steak by yourself, how about sharing it and pairing it up with a big salad? How about adding healthy amounts of filling, fibre-rich foods, such as quinoa salad or multi-grain bread? Replace the pepperoni on your pizza with more veggies or boneless chicken chunks. When making spaghetti or lasagna, add a lot more veggies and use half the amount of ground meat. When making chili, double up on the beans. I poach chicken breast once a week and use it in salads and sandwiches. Make egg salad or hummus.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer affecting Canadians. We already know that lowering weight, reducing alcohol consumption and eating more fibre can lower your risk of getting it.
FP: Are we better off banning red meat and processed meats from our diets?
GS: I never like to vilify one food. Processed meats — I don't really see a good place for them in an overall diet. Red meat does contain a lot of nutrients — B vitamins, iron, zinc. Personally, I don't avoid red meat in my diet. Occasionally, we might have a roast for a family gathering. Or make lasagna. Is it something that we need to have as a staple? I don't think so.
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Updated on Monday, November 9, 2015 at 8:18 AM CST: Replaces photo, formats text