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Fearsome Food News
Today I want to address all of the scary food news that we’ve been hearing lately about the association between processed meats, red meats, and certain carbohydrates with cancer. It’s certainly not news that ham and French fries aren’t health foods, but all of this negative food press can make us feel like there’s nothing safe to eat anymore. If you feel confused and worried about what you’re eating, I want to help guide listeners towards the healthiest approach to eating these potentially carcinogenic foods and offer some ideas for healthful alternatives.
First, here’s some background on the recent report that made so many headlines.
The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report in October stating that there is convincing evidence that eating too much processed meat can increase the risk of colon and rectal (and possibly stomach) cancer.
- The report also said that red meat is probably carcinogenic, as it is positively associated with pancreatic and prostate cancers. Although this is not exactly new or surprising news, the recent report has had the benefit of getting people to pay more attention to what they are eating, as few people may have realized that regular consumption of turkey deli meat (for example) could increase their colon cancer risk.
- I think it’s worth assessing how much and how often you eat red meat and processed meat. Although the lifetime risk of developing colorectal, pancreatic, and stomach cancers is low for most of us, the more often we eat processed and red meats, the more our risk of developing these cancers increases.
So what exactly is processed meat?
Processed meat is defined as meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, smoking, fermenting, or the addition of nitrates or other chemical preservatives. Poultry; fish; and Red meat, which includes beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, and goat; can all be processed meats.
Here are some specific examples of processed meats:
- Hot dogs*
- Turkey bacon
- Canadian bacon
- Cold cuts or deli lunch meats* (such as roast beef, turkey, pastrami, corned beef, bologna)
- Smoked fish
*Including meats made with natural nitrates from celery juice
You don’t have to give up processed meats completely, but you should eat them infrequently—once or twice a month. That’s going to be easy for some people who already eat them on occasion, but harder for people who eat a turkey sandwich for lunch every day or have a side of bacon with their eggs every morning. The same goes for red meat; you don’t have to give it up, but aim for a limit of eating it about once a week. When you do eat red meat, try to avoid charring the outside and cooking it over very high heat, as this causes the formation of additional carcinogens. Grass-fed beef and lamb is also preferable, since the meat from these animals contains anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats that are not present in conventionally raised meats.
Here are six ways that you can reduce your intake of processed and red meats:
1. Eat them on special occasions, like holidays, vacations, celebratory meals, and at sporting events. Think about having a hot dog at a baseball game, a steak at your birthday dinner, or some bacon at a Sunday brunch with some friends. Plan for these occasions rather than making a hamburger or pepperoni pizza your default meal.
2. Use beans and lentils in soups, stews and chili instead of ham, sausage, and bacon.
3. Flavor your mixed dishes with fresh herbs, garlic, onion, and dried spices instead of sausage.
4. If you frequently eat eggs with a side of bacon, turn your eggs into an omelet filled with a variety of sautéed vegetables and skip the bacon.
5. Try to eat more vegetarian meals. Two a day should be your goal. Instead of red meat, try beans, legumes, edamame, tofu, eggs, yogurt, milk, cottage cheese, nut butters, nuts, seeds, fresh turkey, chicken and fish.
6. Substitute some of my suggested Processed Meat Alternatives for your deli meat sandwiches (discuss table). Visit www.gelsons.com for my recipes for tuna salad, egg salad, turkey salad, curried chicken salad, Chickpea spread, almond butter and banana blueberry tartines and more!
Processed Meat Alternatives for Sandwiches and Wraps
- Tuna Salad
- Salmon Salad
- Egg salad
- Fresh chicken breast
- Fresh turkey breast
- Turkey salad or chicken salad
- Nut butters
If you’re interested in lowering your overall cancer risk but are wondering what to eat in place of your regular turkey sandwich, there are plenty of healthful alternatives! Please first consider vegetarian alternatives, since eating a plant-based diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet (which includes at least two vegetarian meals a day), has been shown to be the most cancer-protective eating pattern.
As for burnt toast and crispy French fries, starchy foods that are well-cooked using high heat causes the formation of a substance called acrylamide, a “probable carcinogen” according to WHO. You can and should limit your intake of potato chips, French fries, and other deep fried foods, and try not to burn your toast. As with red and processed meats, these are foods to eat occasionally, not daily.
When it comes to eating to prevent cancer, your overall diet pattern is the most important factor. If you eat a mostly plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet most of the time, then eating a hot dog or crispy French fries once in a while will probably not cause cancer. Eating red meat, processed meat, and well-cooked starches in moderation and without fear or guilt is the best and most realistic approach, since what you eat most of the time will have a much greater impact on your health than foods you eat only occasionally.
Q: What foods are on the processed meats list that surprised you?
A: I think the smoked fish, like lox, was the most surprising. Also, the deli meats made with celery juice was a bit of a surprise.