Step away from the stove and put down the bacon, sir.
If you’re like most testosterone laden males reading this site, you probably don’t think twice about a nice steak or even a sausage, egg, and cheese biscuit.
Nothing wrong with treating yourself every once in a while, but it may be time to re-examine your red meat consumption.
Recently, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) published a massive meta-analysis on the effects of red meat on cancer development.1
Processed red meat took a hit as it received a “Group 1” classification (i.e. definitely “carcinogenic to humans”). Regular red meat didn’t seem to be as deleterious but it still received a “Group 2” classification (i.e. probably “carcinogenic to humans”).
“Processing” is a somewhat nebulous term given all products that wind up on grocery store shelves undergo a standard amount of processing. However, for the scope of this article, we are going to be using the WHO’s definition:
“Processed meat refers to meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.
Examples of processed meat include hot dogs (frankfurters), ham, sausages, corned beef, and biltong or beef jerky as well as canned meat and meat-based preparations and sauces.” – WHO (World Health Organization)5
Now, before you decide to go vegan and completely overhaul your diet, it’s important to understand that these classifications have only been established for colorectal cancer. So, when you see headlines espousing the “cancer causing” effects of red meat, keep in mind that these are not generalized findings.
That being said, if you do want to keep red meat in your diet, here are a few suggestions to improve the health outcomes from continuous ingestion.
1. Iron Out the Wrinkles
Red meat may be the micronutrient savior for anemic individuals but one must remain mindful of their overall intake. Excess iron can easily become oxidized (aka rust) within the body and ends up floating around in the GI tract. Unbound iron can eventually lead to cellular damage and thus increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
Again though, this is dependent on the type (processed vs. natural) and amount of red meat consumed throughout the week so don’t jump on the vegetarian bandwagon just yet.
Takeaway: The odds of you “rusting out” are fairly low but none the less, the mechanism is plausible with regards to colorectal cancer concerns.
2. Get Green. Stay Lean.
Many of the physiological mechanisms behind red meat consumption and the potential carcinogenic risk can be offset by your intake of vegetables. During digestion, processed red meat can produce certain substances known as NOCs (N-nitroso compounds) which have the potential to damage your gut lining.
Anytime you alter intestinal permeability, you open a breeding ground for all sorts of autoimmune conditions, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), food allergies, or celiac disease.2
Takeaway: Consuming green vegetables can help to offset NOC formation and reduce colon cancer risk.
3. Go Easy on The Grill
Grilling is the epitome of summer, everything from burgers to kebabs and even the occasional corn on the cob. But, the issue arises when we become attached to our beloved grill marks. You see, grilling red meat produces certain chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) which can damage the gut if consumed regularly in high amounts.
However, if you’re consistent with point #1 above, you may be able to offset this risk as certain compounds in cruciferous vegetables (e.g. Brussel sprouts, broccoli, etc.) may reduce the impact of HCAs. Similarly, certain spice blends (Caribbean, Southwest, and herb) can help to reduce HCA formation during cooking so marinate wisely.
Takeaway: Season well, marinade, cook on low heat, serve with a side of veggies, and don’t let the stress of it all get to you.
4. This Is Not a Laughing Matter
TMAO – ever heard of it? No, not LMAO, TMAO. Trimethylamine N-oxide if you want to get specific. It’s a compound which gets metabolized from an amino acid derivative found in red meat.
Some research has linked TMAO to colon cancer but again, this is context dependent as other research has shown that vegans and vegetarians produce less TMAO than meat eaters.3,4
Takeaway: Mom was probably right, you need to eat your veggies.
The Dose Makes the Poison
If you haven’t noticed yet, most of the deleterious effects of red meat consumption (regardless of cooking method) are minimized with a high intake of green vegetables. While the correlation may seem obvious to most, there are many within the fitness industry who discredit the importance of micronutrients (I’m looking at you #IIFYM).
One may choose to disregard certain nutritional principles based upon preconceived beliefs but that certainly doesn’t reduce the scientific validity or practical applicability of the evidence at hand.
Cancer is multifactorial and incredibly complex by nature; as such, it would be irresponsible to place the blame on a single factor (i.e. red meat). Genetics, environment, sleep, lifestyle, nutrition, movement, stress management – they all play a role and it’s impossible to isolate a sole causative factor.
Not to mention, “increased risk” exists on a large spectrum - just because a risk factor is present doesn’t mean it will metastasize into something harmful. The magnitude of an impending risk is just as important as the specifics regarding the risk itself.
But, more often than not, sensationalism sells. Promoting all red meat as “heavily carcinogenic” is flashy and controversial. Admittedly, there is an ample body of evidence suggesting that processed red meat is likely not the best choice for your overall health and body composition. But, that’s not to say that red meat can’t be part of a well-balanced diet.
So, while Oscar Mayer for breakfast, lunch, and dinner isn’t the most sustainable or health conscious decision, 2-3 servings of grass fed beef per week is likely not as much of a carcinogenic concern as something like smoking.
- Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat
- Human Intestinal Barrier Function in Health and Disease
- Trimethylamine-N-oxide, a metabolite associated with atherosclerosis, exhibits complex genetic and dietary regulation.
- Intestinal microbiota metabolism of L-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis
- Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat