A few things you should know about processed meats
So you've heard that cutting back on carbs is the way to go. Maybe you're just cutting back on sugar, going gluten-free, or maybe you're following a lower carb diet like the Atkins, Paleo, or Keto. The reality is that many North Americans have too many of the wrong kinds of carbs in their diets. Wether this means we need to take things to the opposite extreme and avoid carbs as much as possible is questionable, but that's a topic for a different post. I believe that there isn't one best diet for everyone and that most ways of eating can be balanced and healthful if they're done right. There is even evidence that low carb diets may be healthy as treatment for some medical conditions like epilepsy and SIBO.
The thing I want to bring up today is that while many of these 'low-carb' diets focus on villifying carb (and fiber) rich foods like whole grains, legumes, and sometimes even fruit, they leave lots of room for loyal followers to have bacon or sausage daily. As long as it's low carb, it's good for you, right!?
Most processed meats like bacon, sausage and ham are loaded with salt and saturated fats. I get it - there's been a lot of debate lately about the whole saturated fat issue, but salt and saturated fat aside there is one thing that is clear in the research that is vastly overlooked. Processed meat is strongly linked with cancer. Enough so that processed meats are classified as a Group 1 Carcinogen by the World Health Organization (WHO). Just to give you a comparison, Tobacco and Asbestos are two other compounds listed on the Group 1 Carcinogen list. This means there's enough evidence that processed meats cause certain types of cancer like colorectal cancer. Other types of cancer your bacon and sausage habit may be linked to are pancreatic and prostate.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, the working group in charge of reviewing the literature on this issue, examined over 400 studies on processed meat and cancer in humans before coming to this conclusion. The Global Burden of Disease Project estimates between 34,000 and 50,000 cancer deaths annually can be attributed to diets high in processed meats. The same group estimates about 1 million annually are attributed to cigarette smoking. So the evidence doesn't mean that processed meats are equally as harmful as cigarette smoking (probably), but it's certainly enough to make me think twice before I make a regular habit of sausage and eggs.
Does this mean you can't ever enjoy a hot dog again? Or that you have to say no to the charcuterie board next time you're at a social event? No. A little indulgence once in a while does not have the same impact on health as something you make a daily or weekly habit. The evidence does suggest that the more regularly you eat processed meats, the higher your cancer risk. Bottom line? Processed meats should be enjoyed sparingly as a treat. They should not be making a regular appearance in your refrigerator or on your plate.
Aside from all the cancer stuff, processed meats are also high in sodium, which contributes to high blood-pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke when we eat too much of it. Many processed meats are also much higher in fat and lower in protein than we'd like to believe, meaning if you're trying to maximize protein lean cuts of meat are better. When you flll your plate with bacon and eggs you may get lots of protein and fat, but you're missing out on valuable nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. And nope, that multivitamin doesn't stand up to veggies and fruits in the research.
If you do believe that a paleo or keto diet is the best fit for your body, do yourself a favour and make sure you're choosing minimally processed meats, preferably grass-fed or organically raised like our ancestors would have. I can assure you that our distant relatives would not have had hot dogs or salami on the menu! Oh, and eat your veggies. LOTS of them.
Another win for whole, unprocessed foods.
1. What is processed meat?
- Any meat product that is preserved through curing, salting, fermenting, or smoking methods. This includes bacon, sausage, hot-dogs, ham, pepperoni, beef jerky, SPAM, many sandwich meats, and other similar products.
2. How does processed meat cause cancer?
- Researchers are not exactly sure at this point, but it may involve the chemicals and preservatives in these meats that generate N-nitroso compounds in the gut, such as nitrites.
- Cooking meat at high temperatures can also create chemicals in meat that may increase the risk of cancer. These chemicals are generally produced in higher levels in red and processed meats compared to other meats.
World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/
International Agency for Research on Cancer: https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf
Cancer Research UK: http://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2015/10/26/processed-meat-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/ - good visuals (use)
National Institute of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108955/
Carcinogenicity of Consumption of Red and Processed Meats (Lancet): http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanonc/article/PIIS1470-2045(15)00444-1/abstract