Mantra #2 of The Karma Sense Eating Plan advises you to Eat Protein in Every Meal. The Karma Sense Eating Plan is an inclusive lifestyle that does not make any value judgments about what you eat as long as it’s not poison. Therefore. red meat has full citizenship as a source of Karma Sense protein. So how does the plan reconcile this against a recent announcement from the World Health Organization (WHO) that red meat is probably a carcinogen? The way I see it I have several choices:
- Jump on the “Healthy Lifestyle” Militia bandwagon and start preaching the evils of red meat.
- Side with the meat industry and the politicians they own and Deny! Deny! Deny!
- Take the politician thing one step further and out the WHO as yet another blue-helmeted organization under the United Nations (UN) umbrella. The same UN that underhandedly used a repurposed version of the Americans with Disabilities Act to criminalize home schooling (debunked by many prominent conservatives).
- Provide a reasoned analysis of the announcement and its implications.
Surprisingly, I’m going with reasoned analysis. The announcement is misleading and lacks context. Moderate consumption of red meat is a Karma Sense avenue towards better health (and perhaps happiness – but not world saving). But don’t confuse me with a paleolithic meat-defending zealot. Red meat is NOT an essential part of a healthy diet. As long as you manage your overall nutrition, there is no downside to reducing or eliminating the red meat in your diet. Below you’ll find the missing context. With that, you can make an informed choice.
Do what you gotta do, brah.
Who is WHO and IARC and What Does their Announcement Mean?
The World Health Organization is an agency within the United Nations that focuses on international public health. It’s credited with eliminating smallpox and more recently had a prominent role in fighting the Ebola crisis in West Africa. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is a subagency within WHO that among other things, publishes and maintains lists of known carcinogens. IARC assigns substances to different groups depending on the strength of evidence that a substance causes cancer. These levels are:
- Group 1: carcinogenic to humans.
- Group 2A: probably carcinogenic to humans.
- Group 2B: possibly carcinogenic to humans.
- Group 3: not classifiable as to carcinogenicity in humans.
- Group 4: probably not carcinogenic to humans.
In this announcement, “processed meats” were assigned to Group 1. “Red meat” is a Group 2A carcinogen. Other than more details of what types of meat are included and some confusing statistics, that’s the crux of the announcement. There is really no further context.
How Should The Announcement be Interpreted?
The IARC places substances on one of its lists based on the strength of evidence that it causes cancer. They assigned processed meats to Group 1 because there is enough historical and continued evidence to link processed meat to colorectal cancer. They assigned red meat to Group 2A “based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect” (bolding added by me). They use the term “carcinogenic effect” when the link to cancer is not strong enough to say a substance actually causes cancer. So to put it another way. IARC is saying that for red meat, there is strong evidence of weak causation. Are you confused yet?
How Is the Announcement Actually Interpreted?
Using Karma Sense To Put This Into Perspective
Let’s make something clear before continuing. If you were to ask me for a list of top 10 things to do to upgrade your diet, eating less meat would almost definitely appear on that list. But, You are not “N”, thus I hedge by adding the word “almost.” Meat is not an essential part of the diet regardless of its color. With a few adjustments, all of the nutrition your body needs to thrive can be obtained from plant-based sources.
However, some animal products are especially good vehicles for specific nutrients. Furthermore, some people get so much enjoyment from eating meat that removing it from the diet is just not realistic. Why bother to make dietary recommendations if they’re going to be ignored? I can’t tell you how many proclamations I’ve seen on social media that equate to “I’ll give you my bacon when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”
If you are part of this “must eat meat” group, here is what you need to take away from the IARC’s decree. If you take away only one word from this post it would be “context.”
Processed meat is assigned to Group 1 and red meat to Group 2A based on the strength of evidence that they each cause cancer. What the IARC doesn’t do is talk about how much processed or red meat you need to eat to get cancer nor does it give context as to what conditions affect your chances of getting cancer.
Processed meat, for example, is assigned to the same group as some highly lethal stuff including arsenic, neutron radiation and mustard gas. On the other extreme is sunlight. It’s true, excessive exposure to sunlight does cause cancer. But so can excessive avoidance. Sunlight is a primary source of Vitamin D and Vitamin D deficiency is linked to many types of cancer. It seems we can’t win
Group 2A is similarly dysfunctional. Red meat is in the same club as ultraviolet light (the cancerous part of sunlight that is in Group 1?!?) and nitrates (the most cancerous part of processed meat that is in Group 1?!?). To me, that is such a source of ?!?s it makes me want to shout #!@%!
In fact, of the over 900 substances the IARC has studied, only one, caprolactam, a precursor to nylon, is assigned to Group 4 meaning it probably isn’t carcinogenic. So feel free to eat all the stockings you want. According to the IARC. you probably won’t get cancer.
Most of the individual items on any of the IARC lists have a specific composition. Vinyl fluoride is a Group 2A substance with the chemical formula C2H3F. Red meat has no chemical formula. It’s made up of hundreds of different compounds, including H20. So why not put water on the list?
The fact is that there are certain components in red meat that are more dangerous depending on the context in which they’re consumed. For a detailed understanding of these compounds, I recommend this article from Examine.com. The cancerous capabilities of these compounds are often enhanced when meat is processed which is one of the reasons why processed meats get a more severe rating than their less processed versions.
One last beef (could not help that) I have with the individual items on the IARC lists. is how they define red meat. According to IARC red meat is “the muscle tissue from mammals including beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat” (E-I-E-I-O). There is no further distinction. As far as the IARC list is concerned, a Big Mac and a piece of lean, organic, grass-fed beef is the same thing.
The association between processed meat and chronic disease is indeed strong. There is research that links processed meat to high blood pressure, heart disease, respiratory disease, and of course, cancer. It’s important to note, however, that this association does not prove that eating bacon-wrapped hot dogs will give you cancer. For me, the evidence is strong enough and my craving is weak enough that I’ll avoid processed meats.
The situation is different with red meat and this is why the IARC put red meat in Group 2A. The evidence linking red meat and chronic diseases including cancer gets weaker all the time. The same study that found a link between processed meat and heart disease was unable to prove any link between red meat and heart disease. Earlier this year, an extensive meta-analysis concluded that the association between red meat and cancer is also insignificant. Note that meta-analysis, the systematic review of all available research, is considered the gold standard of science. Again from my perspective, the nutrition and enjoyment I get from eating red meat a few times a week outweighs the known risk.
We all know that too much of a good thing is usually bad for you. This is true with processed meat, red meat and even broccoli. The real question is what is the minimal effective dose that causes harm? To be, ahem, frank, nobody knows. But here are some considerations.
The IARC announcement makes the following odd statement about processed meat:
each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
I have to admit, I have no idea what that means. Let’s try to break it down anyway. 50 grams is about two strips of bacon or a little more than one hot dog. Does this mean that with every two strips of bacon or every hot dog I eat my chances of colorectal cancer goes up another 18%? If so, I probably locked in my cancer a long time ago (it’s the magic of compounding). So I’m thinking they mean something different.
Digging into the detailed monograph, I now know they mean 50 grams per day. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s colorectal cancer rate statistic says we each have a 5% chance of contracting colorectal cancer sometime before we become 90 years old. So, if you eat two strips of bacon or a hot dog every day your odds of colorectal cancer goes from 5% to 6%. I don’t find those odds very intimidating.
The IARC hedges more when discussing the odds of getting cancer from red meat. But let’s not let that stop us from placing that part of the announcement in context. There is a hypothesis in the nutritionist community that people who eat the most meat lead unhealthy lifestyles in general. In other words, people who eat red meat twice a day are also likely to be smokers, inactive, avoid known cancer-fighting foods such as vegetables and fruits and/or do other F-ed up $hit. I have to admit, I’ve found no research that clearly demonstrates this. However, it makes Karma Sense that if you eat more meat, you’re eating less other stuff. Is the already weak link between red meat and cancer a result of too much meat or is it due to too few vegetables and fruits?
Finally, there is the context of what specifically you’re eating and how it’s prepared. As previously mentioned, red meat and processed meats are very broad categories. It is not very helpful to classify hot dogs and nitrate-free bacon made from organic open-pen pigs in the same group. In a recent test performed by Clear Food, 15% of the hot dogs tested contained contamination including unhygienic materials and ingredients not listed on the label. In fact, 2% of the hot dogs tested contained human DNA!
Now, don’t panic yet. This doesn’t mean that you’ve eaten human body parts. Clear Food’s test is unable to distinguish the actual source of that human DNA. So it might only be dander, hair, or body fluids and not fingers, toes, or other chunks of people. Isn’t that reassuring?
Unlike hot dogs which are made from various scraps of meat (and other stuff) bacon is nothing but sliced pork belly that is seasoned, smoked or cured in a way that is much easier to manage and regulate. Putting bacon and hot dogs in the same category is a false equivalency. This isn’t a license to eat all the bacon you want, it’s just another consideration.
Red meat suffers from the same issue. A hamburger fried using industrial cooking oil on a grill that is cleaned (at most) every shift change, is not the same as a piece of lean organic grass-fed beef. And, that grass-fed beef is not the same if it’s cooked to medium-rare vs. well-done. Finally, regardless of how it is cooked, the effect of that beef in your gut is different if it’s eaten with mashed potatoes and gravy versus steamed vegetables and olive oil.
Sources and preparation matter.
Now you have the full context. What do you do with it?
If You Intend to Continue to Eat Red Meat
Here are some suggestions on consuming meat for optimal health.
- Avoid processed meats. There is strong evidence that even moderate consumption of processed meat leads to health issues. For clarity, IARC defines “processed meat” as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.” I prefer my simpler definition. If the meat you eat comes in a package with a list of ingredients. It’s processed. This definition casts a wider net than that of the IARC but by following this guideline you can be confident that all the human DNA that you consume is by choice and not by accident. Processed meats such as ham or bacon should be used more as flavoring than as the centerpiece of a meal.
- Choose red meat that is raised without antibiotics and hormones. It’s best if they’ve been fed their natural diets (e.g., grass-fed cows vs. grain fed). Organic meats usually meet and exceed these criteria. Humanely raised animals suffer from less stress than their factory-farmed equivalents. It’s believed, but not demonstrated, that the stress hormones released by animals can elicit a stress response by people who eat them. By concentrating your meat consumption on the types that I just described, you will cut your body’s inflammation response. Chronic inflammation is a known cause of several nasty diseases including cancer.
- Follow mantra #3, Eat More Vegetables and Fruits. The micronutrients, fiber and phytochemicals in vegetables and fruits do wonders to offset the stress and DNA damage that can be associated with consuming red meat.
- Avoid cooking meat until it’s charred. Some people find those grill marks on a juicy steak desirable. They are tasty but nasty. You can undo some of the damage caused by consuming heterocyclic amines (which is what show-offs call those char marks) by eating more vegetables and fruits (especially cruciferous vegetables), marinating the meat before cooking, or cooking with certain spices such as rosemary.
- Don’t take iron supplements unless you’re sure you’re anemic. Red meat is an excellent source of iron, but excess iron is toxic.
- Take good care of your gut. Don’t ingest antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Eat plenty of probiotic foods like yogurt, unpasteurized pickles and sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh. Feed those friendly gut bacteria by eating prebiotic foods. Once again, a balanced mix of vegetables and fruits should serve you here.
If You Intend to Significantly Reduce or Eliminate Eating Red Meat
I can’t say it enough. Red meat is not an essential part of the human diet. You can mostly ignore the guidelines above if you only eat red meat a couple times a month or less. However, red meat is an excellent source of some essential nutrients. If you intend to severely change your diet away from red meat, make sure you compensate by considering the following micronutrients:
- Vitamin B12 – Vitamin B12 is a water-soluble micronutrient that is essential to your circulatory and nervous system (i.e. blood and brain). Your body is designed for consistent intake of B12. Animal-based food is the best source. If all you’re doing is reducing red meat but are still eating poultry, fish, dairy, and/or eggs, you should be fine. If you’re going vegan, food sources for B12 include nori seaweed and tempeh. There are also B12 supplements made from vegetable sources. Note that some B12 supplements are created with so-called psuedovitamin B12 which is not really absorbed by the body but adds a lovely (and costly) golden color to your urine. Always check the sources of your supplements.
- Protein – In the context of nutrition, protein is a blanket term for 20 different amino acids. Animals and a finite set of plant-based foods offer the full spectrum of 20. If you’re only reducing your red meat intake and compensating with poultry, fish, dairy, and eggs, you’re covered. Vegans need to eat plenty of complimentary foods (e.g. beans-and-rice, peanut-butter-on-whole-grain-toast) and include some of the plant-based foods that carry the entire amino acid roster (e.g. quinoa, buckwheat, hemp seed, soy).
- Iron – Red meat contains one of the best sources of iron, heme iron. Heme iron is also a likely contributor to the “carcinogenic effect” of red meat. Poultry and fish also contain heme-iron but not as much as red meat. Vegans should be especially watchful of their iron levels. Iron deficiency or anemia is common in vegans. Regardless, never use iron supplements unless directed by a physician.
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