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Leslie Beck: Moderation is key when weighing cancer risk of meat

Last week's headlines tying some types of meat to colorectal cancer left many people wondering whether they should banish them from their diet altogether.

Is it finally time to give up that juicy steak? Should you trade in cold cuts for tuna?

To recap, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, ruled that processed meat causes colorectal cancer and red meat (e.g., beef, pork, lamb, goat) probably does.

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The term "processed meat" refers to meats preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives.

Ham, bacon, corned beef, pastrami, salami, bologna, sausages, hot dogs, bratwursts, frankfurters and beef jerky are processed meats.

So are turkey (and chicken) sausages, smoked turkey and turkey bacon. However, most studies have looked only at processed red meats.

While the IARC's conclusion means there is an established and scientifically valid association between red and processed meats and the risk of cancer, there's no need to panic.

Just because something raises the risk of cancer doesn't mean it will cause cancer.

Dose matters – how much meat you eat, how often you eat it and for how long you've been eating it. And, it's important to note, other dietary and lifestyle choices will affect the risk, too.

You don't have to stop eating red meat. It is a good source of high-quality protein, B vitamins, iron and zinc. That said, if you eat red meat frequently and in large portions, you should cut back.

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Based on an expert review of 7,000 studies that was published in 2007, the American Institute for Cancer Research advises eating no more than 18 ounces (500 grams) of red meat each week. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends a stricter limit of three servings – three ounces each – per week.

Processed meats, on the other hand, should be eaten sparingly, if at all.

There are reasons beyond the prevention of colorectal cancer to eat less meat.

Diets high in red and processed meats are linked to a greater risk of Type 2 diabetes. A steady intake of fat- and sodium-laden processed meats can also increase the likelihood of high blood pressure, being overweight and cardiovascular disease.

And let's not forget that eating less meat is good for the environment and animal welfare.

If you do eat red meat, the following six strategies will help you do so moderately.

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Vary your protein

To limit red meat to three meals per week, choose poultry and fish more often. Replace ground beef with ground chicken or turkey in burger, chili and pasta sauce recipes.

Eat at least four meatless meals each week, such as lentil soup, bean salad, chickpea curry, black bean tacos, pasta e fagioli, tofu stir-fry and vegetarian chili.

Downsize portions

When you do eat red meat, limit your serving to three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards. No more than one-quarter of your plate should be filled with meat.

Use smaller amounts of meat in stir-fries and pasta sauces. Substitute half the meat in chili and stews with extra beans or other vegetables. Serve thin slices of steak rather than a whole piece.

Choose lean cuts

To cut saturated fat, select lean cuts such as sirloin, flank steak, eye of the round, beef tenderloin, lean and extra-lean ground beef, pork tenderloin, centre-cut pork chops and lamb tenderloin.

Cook meat differently

High-heat cooking methods such as barbecuing, grilling, broiling and pan-frying produce heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals that have been linked to cancer in animals. Indirect-heat methods such stewing, poaching and steaming produce fewer HCAs and PAHs.

When grilling, flip meat often to reduce the formation of HCAs and PAHs. Marinating meat before cooking can also help to prevent the formation of carcinogens.

Ditch the deli

Replace deli meats in sandwiches and salads with tuna, salmon, egg or cooked fresh chicken or turkey. On the weekend, cook extra chicken breasts or a whole turkey breast for quick weekday lunches. Although higher in sodium, soy-based veggie slices are options too.

Deli meats made with cultured celery extract, a "natural" preservative, are not any healthier than those made with nitrite preservatives, compounds that have been implicated as cancer-causing agents. Cultured celery extract is still a source of nitrites.

Stay balanced

An occasional hot dog at the ball game isn't going to kill you. Remember, there are other important strategies that guard against cancer – and heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and obesity, for that matter.

Eating a diet that includes a variety of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes lowers the risk of many chronic diseases. So does limiting alcohol intake, maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise. Staying healthy requires much more than eating less meat.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.

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