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Friday, November 6, 2015

Red and Processed Meat – Separating the Health from the Headline

There is a lot being said, tweeted and otherwise digitally shared about the latest announcement regarding processed meat, red meat and cancer risk.  Here’s why you shouldn’t give in to the media’s scare-tactics.

First: keep terminology in mind: association, link, and risk.  An association or link between one food and a disease condition is still a somewhat fuzzy terms and do not mean definite causation.  Being raised by a statistics professor, I was taught to always question the way study results are presented in print and other media.  A group of findings or research studies often get generalized and misapplied in the interest of generating buzz.   A little skepticism will serve you well when trying to decipher the hype in the headlines.  If it makes a big media splash, you’d be better off waiting until the media smoke clears before you weigh in and make drastic changes.

Second: there is a difference here between processed meats and red meat.  

Processed meats contain nitrates and nitrites which under certain conditions form nitrosamines which since the 70s it has been recognized as carcinogenic to animals.  So for quite a while we’ve known that  processed meats should be limited in a healthful diet.  

Red meat falls into the category of “probably” carcinogenic.  There are a lot of beneficial nutrients to be found in red meat, so don’t completely blacklist the entire category of food.

Third: there is an elephant in the room which is neither processed, nor red meat.  True, those may be a few of many animals in the room, but let’s not forget the elephant – the American diet (which is slowly spreading worldwide).  Sedentary lifestyles, excessive amounts of prepackaged, processed foods, and too little produce is the real problem.  Don’t let hype over one tree take your focus from the forest.  It is the big picture of how much, how often and how balanced these foods are with other elements in your diet that truly determine your state of health and the best way to see that whole picture is to meet with a Registered Dietitian. 

Take home message:
1.     Eat More Plants – half of what goes into your mouth every time you eat should be plants.
2.     Moderation and Portion – a plate-sized steak or 5 strips of bacon for breakfast every day are not the way to go.  However, a few strips of bacon at a weekend brunch, or the occasional 3 oz. steak are very doable in a healthful diet.
3.     Variety and Frequency – Going vegetarian a few days a week, mixing up your protein sources to include beans, fish, poultry, dairy and eggs will help moderate your risk from any one food. 

Fear and guilt is what sells, so be wary.  At the end of the day, it is the solid, non-flashy, non-headline habits that lead to life-long health.

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