Meat and Cancer: Is bacon the new smoking?
So you've definitely heard the news by this point. It is now definitively scientific fact that eating meat causes cancer. Just one standard serving per day raises your risk of cancer by roughly 20%, and that's not to account for those who consume two or three servings per day. (Read about it here.)
Processed meats have been ranked by the World Health Organisation as a Group 1 carcinogen, which is equivalent to inhaling asbestos or cigarette smoke. Processed meats are not just canned meats and beef jerky. Meats that are "processed" also include common foods in the standard diet such as bacon, ham, hotdogs, sausages, salami and corned beef.
Classified as a Group 2 carcinogen, meaning they can cause cancer but with a slightly lower probability, are the other types of red meats. This includes popular foods like beef, pork, veal and lamb.
Meat, and especially red meat, is fundamentally an incredibly dangerous substance causing all those problems we've long known of like inflammation, clogged arteries, constipation, hypertension, hyperglycemia, heart arrhythmias, and more.
These foods are high in saturated fats and cholesterol which contribute directly to diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. We all know about this because once you've already been diagnosed with one of these conditions Doctors will then recommend a reduction in the consumption of red meat. (Astonishingly, they wait until you're already dying to tell you these foods were a problem.)
But there's another, lesser understood aspect of these foods that the public are generally less informed about - heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These are carcinogenic chemicals found in meat and its byproducts, the dangers of which I will explain below, and whose risk factors are amplified by the way we choose to prepare the meat.
The first cancer risk involves the basic chemical properties of meat. When the proteins and creatine in meat are raised to a high temperature (cooked), they produce the chemical compound we call HCAs. This is the aspect which makes all meat dangerous to consume regardless of quantity, source or method of cooking. These HCAs are found not just in red meat but also in poultry and fish. While the white meats haven't been listed as Group 2 carcinogens yet, all 100 samples of chicken tested from seven fast-food chains in the US were indeed found to be contaminated with these HCAs.
The second risk occurs when meat is cooked over an open flame (smoked meats). The flames contain the compound called PAHs which are transferred to the surface of the meat. While HCAs are already a life-threatening danger involved with eating meat, PAHs are an additional and avoidable risk factor.
The PAHs found in smoked meats are the exact same toxins found in cigarette smoke and car fumes. This is why they are calling eating meat the new smoking, because it really is doing the same damage. You may as well stick your mouth over a tailpipe and take a deep breath.
So to rehash: All red meat contains HCAs, and smoked meats additionally contain PAHs.
The reason these two acronyms are dangerous? These compounds are mutagenic, meaning they change and corrupt human DNA. Our DNA is what controls the growth and functioning of our bodies, so any foreign chemical we introduce into our body that is known to change our DNA makeup is capable of affecting the development of our body in strange ways. This includes the uncontrolled reproduction of abnormal cells - or, what we commonly call cancer.
While a low-fibre, high-cholesterol, carcinogenic-heavy diet can produce a variety of cancers and other diseases in a number of unpredictable ways, red meat is most firmly linked to three common types of cancer: cancer of the colon, pancreas and prostate.
The theory is that cancer occurs in these regions because of the low fibre content of meat which makes it particularly difficult for the human body to digest. Our digestive system is three times the length of carnivorous or omnivorous species', meaning it takes much longer for meats to pass out through our system than other animals who are better designed for this diet. While the meat is sitting in our stomach, intestines and bowels for long periods of time, it is slowly leaking these carcinogens into our digestive system and affecting the closest organs.
In Australia, the two most common types of cancer are prostate and breast cancers in men and women respectively. The second most common type of cancer is that which is shared universally, colorectal/bowel cancer. Coincidence? Absolutely not. While there are variables in genetic disposition, lifestyle choices, and of course sheer chance, we tend to know the most common contributors to these diseases.
Prostate and colon cancer = red meat and dairy.
Breast cancer = high cholesterol diets (i.e. the consumption of meat and dairy).
So what is the solution? That part is as easy as pie!
You can stop eating meat, like, yesterday. One in ten people already avoid meat completely, not counting those that consume very little. The vegetarian trend has been huge among top athletes and heart surgeons for a while already!
There are millions of vegetarian recipes available at your fingertips online, plus dozens of faux meat brands designed to easily supplement the taste and texture of the meals you're familiar with to ease you into a healthier way of living. Even in the most regional of Australian supermarkets I have always found vegetarian meat products, plus a variety of fruit, vegetables, legumes and grains.
- Red and processed meats classified as carcinogens: https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf
- Source on red meat causing inflammation in the body: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/D718D5E9F16F2F9E4075D32373C874BA/S0007114510003004a.pdf/div-class-title-the-capacity-of-foodstuffs-to-induce-innate-immune-activation-of-human-monocytes-span-class-italic-in-vitro-span-is-dependent-on-food-content-of-stimulants-of-toll-like-receptors-2-and-4-div.pdf
- HCAs found in chicken: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/fast-food-tested-for-carcinogens/
- Source on how meat causes cancer: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet/cooked-meats-fact-sheet#q1
- Info on pancreatic cancer: https://nutritionfacts.org/video/largest-study-ever/
- Link of animal products to prostate cancer: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3132069/
- Causes of prostate cancer: http://www.cancer.ca/en/cancer-information/cancer-type/prostate/risks/?region=on
- Low-fat high-fibre diets slowing breast cancer growth: https://www.pritikin.com/eperspective/specialissues/cancer/cancerabstract.pdf
- What does carcinogenic mean?: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carcinogen