Please pass on the meat?

Amy Thomas Health Guide
  • I'm not much of a meat eater, and I try to avoid processed meats. But now and then I'll order a steak for dinner or grab a hot dog for my kids. I definitely enjoy barbeque in the summer. I'm in good company. In fact, Americans eat more red meat than most, with a reported average of 36 ounces per week. But while a modest amount of red meat can be a great source of nutrients, larger portions pose a serious health hazard.


    The meat you eat-specifically red meat, processed meat, and fried, broiled, or barbequed meat-can significantly increase your lifetime risk of developing cancer.


    Scientific investigations have long linked meat consumption with cancers of the digestive tract, and meat has also been linked to prostate, breast, stomach, and pancreatic cancer. Recent studies reveal the magnitude of risk facing serious meat-eaters. Given these statistics, you might think twice the next time someone fires up the grill.

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    Consider the following statistics recently reported by researchers at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center: once you consume 18 ounces of red meat in a week, every additional 1.7 ounces you eat raises your risk of colorectal cancer by 15%.


    Processed meats, such as bacon, ham, hotdogs, and lunch meat, are particularly hazardous. A recent review found that the risk of colorectal cancer increases by 21% for every ounce and a half of processed meat consumed daily; another study reports that high intake of processed meats raises the risk of pancreatic cancer by 70% compared to the general population. In fact, a global task force of research experts evaluating a vast body of evidence on the subject of meat and cancer found that no amount of processed meat consumption is definitely safe.


    What's the problem with meat? There are a number of proposed mechanisms by which meat consumption increases the risk of cancer. While most of these aren't undeniably proven, there is strong evidence implicating nitrites-preservatives used in a number of meat products-as the agents linking meat consumption to cancer.


    Other chemicals of interest are called heterocyclic amines. These are formed when muscle meats are cooked at high temperatures (above 482 degrees Fahrenheit), such as with frying, broiling, and barbecuing, or cooked for long periods of time. Other possibilities under investigation include nitrites, nitrosamines, high temperature preparation, heme iron, salting, and smoking.


    Should we exclude meat from our diets entirely? Despite the risks described, meat can be a healthy source of protein, iron, magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B. By following a few precautions most experts agree you can safely keep meat in your diet up to six times a week.

    • Limit your red meat intake to 300 grams or 11 ounces per week.
    • Red meat includes beef, pork, lamb, and goat
    • Example: a quarter-pound burger, a 4-ounce steak, and a bowl of beef stew
    • Eat very little if any processed meat (hot dogs, lunch meat, bacon, sausage, pastrami, and salami)
    • Avoid foods prepared at very high temperatures
    • Try stewing, boiling, oven baking, or poaching instead of frying, broiling, or barbecuing.
    • Avoid foods cooked a long period of time (medium-well or well-done)
    • Limit your intake of gravy made from meat drippings

    These aren't easy changes. If you're the average person living in the US, the measures suggested include reducing your red meat consumption by two-thirds. They also suggest excluding some of the most popular deli treats from your diet. One way to start is by modifying your weekly habits. Perfect your white meat recipes and focus more on fruits and vegetables. Save the hot dogs and briskets for the holidays. Over time your taste may change, and it will no longer be a sacrifice.

Published On: April 04, 2008