Recently the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that human consumption of processed meats should be seen as a global public health risk. The determination that processed meats are carcinogenic was based on sufficient evidence that eating as little as 2 ounces of processed meat daily increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, as compared to those who ate none. Additionally, red meat was classified as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and had strong associated risks of pancreatic, stomach and prostate cancers. As one might expect, the announcement caused a backlash from the meat industry and created confusion among consumers who wondered how much meat is too much and what amount, if any, is reasonable or safe to consume.
When we look at statistics, we can see that we are consuming much more meat than we did 50 years ago — 80 pounds per person in 1940 as compared to 195 pounds per person in 2000. According to the Earth Policy Institute, U.S. meat consumption has been slowly and steadily declining since 2012, signaling a change in attitude possibly based on the high cost of meat, health and environmental concerns, and ethical concerns about industrial meat production. A United Nations goal to eliminate world hunger by 2030, set to be announced shortly, will recommend moving towards a mostly plant-based diet, healthier for both humans and the planet.
Other health agencies, such as the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, have already touted limited red meat consumption, largely aimed at reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer and other diseases. And while we already knew that grilling meat at high temperatures generates compounds that may contribute to carcinogenic risks, many now wonder if we need to give up our favorite bacon cheeseburgers, pastrami sandwiches and the hot dogs consumed during backyard barbecues. The answer, of course, is highly subjective and personal and no recommendations were made nor was any conclusion reached about a safe level to consume.
Based on the WHO report, eating processed and red meats has approximately the same risk factors for developing colon cancer as obesity, a sedentary lifestyle and a diet deficient in fruits and veggies. That said, it’s likely not necessary to give up meat entirely, especially when you follow a fiber-filled nutritious diet and lead a generally healthy lifestyle. However, many tout the long term health benefits of a largely plant-based diet. Substituting meat protein with plant proteins several days each week may reduce the risk of cancer and chronic, highly preventable conditions, including obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and consequently, lead to a longer, healthier lifespan.
Numerous cancer studies conclude that eating lots of fiber-filled plant proteins, vegetables and fruits offers a measure of protection against cancer risk. Whole plant foods are naturally low in fat and high in antioxidants and other health promoting anti-cancer compounds. Unsurprisingly, vegetarians have a significantly reduced risk of cancer as compared to meat eaters. Perhaps, what we should recognize from this announcement is that diet is directly related to health. Poor diets equate to poor health and vice versa. Once more it comes down to different opinions as to what constitutes a healthy diet.
To err on the side of caution, make sure your meals are heavy on the vegetable and bean side. Add in fruits, nuts and whole grains and eggs. Consume fish and chicken several times a week and enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. In other words, eat more like a Greek — eat limited amounts of red meat and consume more salads, olives and yogurt in addition to the foods already mentioned. Save bacon for an occasional treat or that hot dog for an afternoon at the ball park. For those concerned about the impact of their own food choices on the health of our planet, the Mediterranean or any plant-based diet is more climate friendly.
Raising livestock for meat consumption results in very high water usage and contributes substantially to global warming. As the climate shifts, our diets will need to shift as well. The majority of the world’s agricultural land is now dedicated to livestock farming. More efficient use of the land and resources support producing grains, fruits and vegetables for direct human consumption. Many of us have the privilege of choosing what we want to eat every day and it’s important to note that when switching to a more plant-based diet, we need to concentrate on whole foods and avoid the pitfalls of overly processed vegetarian junk foods.
To gradually shift your mindset from a meat-based diet to a plant-based diet, choose nutritious, satisfying foods and consider the following:
- Include nutrient dense greens, mineral rich nuts and seeds, healthy fats to fight inflammation, hearty and filling root veggies and plant-based proteins such as tofu, quinoa and legumes.
- Avoid processed meats most of the time. If you do want to have processed meats occasionally, choose those processed without nitrates, which are known to be carcinogenic.
- When you do opt for red meat, choose grass fed whenever possible. Pasture raised animals who are allowed sunshine, exercise and their natural diet produce healthier meat than animals who are confined and fed an unnatural diet of corn or grain.
- Cook meat in a healthy way, such as baking or stewing. Grilling can trigger the formation of cancer-promoting chemicals such as hydrocarbons.
- Eat small (3 – 4 ounce) portions of meat, along with abundant portions of vegetables and salads.
- Those new to vegetarianism often choose already prepared, processed foods or just eat cheese or french fries. While it is commendable to go vegan or vegetarian, you still need to eat a variety of nutritious whole foods, as close to their natural state as possible. Whole foods are satisfying and filling, reduce cravings and help maintain a healthy weight.
- Those who are concerned about getting enough protein can choose from an array of plant-based protein powders that ensure all essential amino acid needs are met.
To be sure you get that extra protein boost, try these high quality, plant-based protein powdered formulas:
Absolute Protein™ Vanilla by NuMedica – This lean, concentrated whey protein blend provides an array of vitamins and minerals, along with branched-chain amino acids, l-carnitine, l-glutamine and niacin-bound chromium. This quick dissolving formula provides 17 g of whey protein and hydrolyzed protein peptides per serving. Wheat free. Contains soy and dairy. Absolute Protein® Chocolate also available.
MediPro Vegan All in One Shake – Chai by Thorne Research – Ideal for vegans, vegetarians and dairy-sensitive individuals, this non-whey, vegetable-based, multi-nutrient powder provides 22 g of proprietary blend pea, potato and chlorella protein per serving. Contains vitamins, minerals, fibers, fruits, veggies, digestive enzymes and probiotics. Gluten and dairy free, Non-GMO formulation. Also available in Chocolate and Vanilla flavors.
Super Shake – Banana Strawberry by Nutritional Frontiers – This hypoallergenic, vegetarian, low carb protein powder is suitable for those with food allergies or food sensitivities. Super Shake easily blends with a liquid of choice and features 24 g of pea, rice and pumpkin protein per serving. This formula provides a full complement of amino acids, along with fiber and minerals and is available in Chocolate, Chocolate Coconut, Peanut Butter, Pumpkin Spice, Vanilla and Natural flavors. Gluten and soy free, Non-GMO vegan formula.
PaleoMeal™ DF – Chocolate by Designs for Health – This dairy-free powdered nutritional formula is designed to promote wellness by optimizing protein, fat, carbohydrate and micronutrient intake. Suitable for vegans and vegetarians, this plant-derived pea protein powder provides 17 g of protein per serving, along with vitamins, minerals, CLA and mixed tocopherols. Gluten and lactose free, Non-GMO vegetarian formula. Also available in Vanilla and Mixed Berry favors.
IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf
Red meat and colon cancer. http://www.health.harvard.edu/family_health_guide/red-meat-and-colon-cancer
Peak Meat: U.S. Consumption Falling. http://www.earth-policy.org/data_highlights/2012/highlights25
New Health Warning Explained: How Processed Meat Is Linked to Cancer. http://www.livescience.com/52651-red-meat-cancer-warning-explained.html
Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/
American Cancer Society – Nutritional Guidelines for Reducing Your Risk of Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@highplains/documents/document/04februarypresentationpdf.pdf
Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk. http://www.pcrm.org/health/cancer-resources/diet-cancer/facts/meat-consumption-and-cancer-risk
Kale or steak? Change in diet key to U.N. plan to end hunger by 2030. http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/09/11/us-development-goals-hunger-idUSKCN0RB00220150911