Should you be re-thinking your consumption of processed and red meat?

Posted on Wednesday, October 28th, 2015

Written by Lindzie O'Reilly

 An announcement from the World Health Organization (WHO) this week cautioning individuals to limit their intake of processed meat and red meat has led to much discussion in the media. The WHO has now classified processed meats (hot dogs, sausage, bacon, etc) as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic. Before you go cutting these foods out of your diet completely, there are a few things to consider.

Many lifestyle habits that can increase or decrease one’s risk of cancer

Strict recommendations regarding lifestyle habits are often overstated and hard to abide by. It’s important to put your habits into perspective and aim to make small changes each day that help support physical and mental health. Many of us could cause an even larger decrease in our overall cancer risk if we ate more fruits and veggies, drank alcohol in moderation, moved our bodies more, or avoided sunburns as opposed to cutting out processed and red meat completely.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing

We live in a society of extremes and this has led to the portrayal of food and nutrition as much more complicated than it needs to be. Adopting a gluten-free, sugar-free, meat-free, carb-free or whatever else-free diet is typically not the path to health and well-being. Instead, aim for moderation and variety. The more variety you have in your diet, the more nutrients you get. I would be concerned if you are eating red meat for every meal of every day. I would be equally concerned if you are eating apples as your one and only fruit each and every day. Vilifying specific foods is not the answer, balance and variety is.

Think about the role that meat serves for you

For many of us, red meat serves as an important source of protein and iron. This does not mean that red meat is the only way to include protein and iron in your diet, but it does mean that if you plan to decrease or eliminate your intake, you need to educate yourself on alternatives that will serve the same purpose for you. Other great sources of protein and iron include red kidney beans, red lentils or pumpkin seeds. Including meat alternatives such as these into your food routine a few times a week is a good idea. Meat alternatives add variety, decrease the burden on our planet, and add fibre – which conveniently has been shown to decrease cancer risk.

So what’s the bottom line?

The WHO announcement really does not reflect new information - most of us already know that eating red and processed meat each and every day is not reflective of a balanced and varied diet. The WHO announcement will not change the advice I provide to students during one-to-one appointments and will not change the way that I grocery shop or prepare food at home.  I will continue to encourage students to include a variety of protein sources – both meat-based and vegetarian – to meet their nutrient needs. I will continue to work towards teaching students cooking skills (did you know we have cooking classes on campus?? Email cooking@uoguelph.ca for more details) so that they can prepare less processed food options for themselves at home more often. I would never suggest that red or processed meats be removed from your diet completely, instead I’d love to help you come up with options to include more fruits and veggies into your food routine and add variety to your protein repertoire.

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