Yoga and Nutrition
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Monday
Oct262015

What needs to be said about red meat and cancer

In case you missed it, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a report today that processed meat is a carcinogen and red meat is a probable carcinogen. Diets high in processed meat (eg, hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage) definitely increase cancer risk. Diets high in other red meat (eg, beef, veal, lamb, pork) may increase cancer risk. The strongest evidence was for colorectal cancer, but pancreatic, stomach, and prostate cancer were associated, as well.

WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, a group of 22 experts from 10 countries, based this conclusion on a review of about 800 human studies on diet and cancer. Evidence comes from epidemiologic research, studies involving large swathes of people, more ideal for addressing public health concerns than determining what any one individual should eat. And that’s exactly what the WHO report is meant for: to help governments make population-wide recommendations.

Is processed meat really a public health threat? Well… yes. When you consider that eating 50 grams a day of processed meat—about 2 slices of ham or bacon—increases colon cancer risk by 18%, and many, many people worldwide eat many, many slices of ham and bacon, the numbers add up quickly. About 34,000 cancer deaths a year worldwide can be attributed to eating processed meat, and potentially even more to eating other red meat.

None of this means you will get get cancer if you eat a slice of pepperoni pizza, and you won’t if you don’t. Cancer is more complex than that. You could eat all the vegetables, exercise every day, never smoke a cigarette, have no family history of cancer, and still develop the disease. Harsh truth.

But don’t you want to improve your odds?

Diet and lifestyle do matter. The American Institute for Cancer Research estimates that 33% of breast cancer cases (that's 76,500 people) in the United States could be avoided with lifestyle-related changes.

Nutrition clearly plays a large role in obesity, which has been linked to about 10 different types of cancer and may soon surpass tobacco use as the number one modifiable contributor to cancer among Americans. The National Cancer Institute estimates obesity will lead to about 500,000 additional cases of cancer in the United States in the next 15 years.

So should you eat red meat or processed meat? As a vegetarian and a firm believer in the many benefits of plant-based diets, you won’t hear me say eating meat is a good practice. But if you don’t want to give it up entirely, no one, including the WHO, is saying you must.

Just. Have. Less.  

Moderation, folks. More beans, less beef. Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight. Exercise. This is old news, though admittedly not a sweeping, sexy, or profitable statement. 

And for those people who are tweeting about life not being worth living without bacon? Get over it. I haven’t eaten a piece of pig in more than 20 years, and my life is worth more and more every day that I don't contribute to the pain of another living and feeling being. 

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