Media headlines and news stories from the past few weeks might have you asking yourself this very question.
“Should I worry about eating meat?”
If you don’t know what I’m referring to, I am tempted to tell you to forget I mentioned it and go about your business. And have a great day!
I can’t do that though. As a farmer, as a runner, as a nutrition -conscious person, and as a woman, I think this is too important not to talk about. Many people already get too many empty carbs and not enough protein, and I don’t want this announcement to skew that even further. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to explore the issue. I would also welcome your exploration and feedback.
Last week the World Health Organization announced processed meat and red meat may cause cancer. The exact headlines varied, so I went right to the source. From the WHO’s press release,
“A Working Group of 22 experts from 10 countries convened by the IARC Monographs Programme classified the consumption of red meat as probably carcinogenic to humans (Group 2A) based on limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer in humans and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.”
The press release goes on to say, “Processed meat was classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) based on sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.”
Stated toward the end of the release under the Public Health section is this information, “Therefore, these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments, in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
What are we supposed to do with this information?
This was my biggest question after the initial shock I felt at hearing all the media buzz. I’m glad I took the time to read this release because it answered a few questions for me. First, it pointed out the evidence against red meat is “limited” at best. Things sounded a little worse for processed meat, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Second, the press release says very plainly who these results and findings are important for. They are important for “governments and international regulatory agencies.” This data isn’t really written to be scrutinized by the average consumer like me. Even if I did wade through all the research and scientific data behind the announcement, I wouldn’t understand all the food chemistry and processes behind it.
Taken in context, this announcement is basically one more building block of information to help governments and agencies set nutrition guidelines and standards. While some of us may or may not meet or agree with all these standards, the USDA does indeed set Dietary Guidelines to help us eat well. Just as meat has both pros and cons, so do many other foods.
Far more servings of grains were pushed when I was a kid (remember the 6-11 servings of grains from the food guide pyramid?), and now unfortunately it seems like gluten is becoming the enemy. Even though many people have no idea what gluten is. While grains and especially whole grains can definitely part of a healthy diet for many, the recommendations have since been changed toward more fruits and vegetables and more protein.
Eggs were looked at with skeptism for many years because of the cholesterol they contained, and now many nutrition experts agree their benefits and quality protein in a balanced diet generally outweigh risks. Researchers also now understand cholesterol in specific foods we eat has a smaller effect on cholesterol in our bodies than previously thought. The Harvard School of Public Health talks about eggs and cholesterol here.
I don’t bring up these examples to suggest the WHO will suddenly change its position. I simply see that food and nutrition science is complex, our understanding changes with time, and best dietary choices can vary a lot from person to person.
There was enough confusion and inquery about the WHO’s announcement that later last week they took time to issue another press release. The main quote that stuck out to me was, “the latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.”
They also issued a thorough Q & A Section on the meat topic. I would encourage you to check this out if you have time. They were admittedly vague on what type or how much meat to eat because research doesn’t tell us that. Many of their answers do solidify we have more to learn on the issue. The Q&A also clearly points out even though they classified processed meat as a Group 1 item with things like alcohol and tobacco, “this does NOT mean that they are all equally dangerous.”
Ok. Point taken. I know all this information about meat may still seem unsettling, but I actually don’t plan to change my current meat eating.
– I’m an active person with a reasonably balanced diet and a stable, healthy weight. I’ll keep eating what’s working.
-Quality protein helps build lean muscle. Period. I’m a runner who love my carbs, and they give me energy for working out. They don’t, however, do much for building strength and muscle tissue. The more absorbable iron, B12, and certain amino acids found only in meat make it one of the protein sources I need.
– I know far too many women who struggle with low iron, anemia, and problems finding the right iron supplements they can tolerate. Many of them limit meat for various reasons, and this is not a path I want to take. It’s also important to me to keep my iron high enough to donate blood, and meat helps me do that.
– I try to live responsibly and happily, and I refuse to live my life worrying about everything that may raise my risk of cancer. It’s a terrible disease that has killed many people I love, but I won’t let fear rule my thoughts.
– Processed meat is a hugely broad category of food. Deli meat and sausage are different from bacon or venison jerky, and I know this research can’t break down the intricacies of hundreds or thousands of different products separately. I think variety is key, and I plan to keep including a reasonable variety of different poultry, fish, red meat, and even processed meat products.
– I believe in and support livestock farms. It wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t include this. I know my connection to agriculture and livestock sways my opinion in favor of meat. I see the care farmers put into their livestock, and I’m confident this way of life still plays a key role in providing healthy food.
As I finish this post, I’m slurping down a bowl of homemade beef noodle and wondering how my words will be received. I’m not writing this to say you have to eat meat. I am grateful to have affordable access to the nutrition of meat, so I write this post to explore why it’s still ok to eat meat if you choose.
What are your thoughts?