The past two weeks have given us two huge headlines around MEAT and CANCER, and pretty much anything containing the words "meat" or "cancer" gets us talking...
First, the World Health Organization confirmed that processed meats increase the risk of cancer. Yes, bacon, hot dogs, and Spam, this means YOU. Next, a study published by the University of Texas confirmed that meat cooked at high temperatures increases the risk of cancer. Yes, barbecuing, grilling, and frying, this means YOU.
I say that these announcements "confirmed" the increased risk of cancer because this research actually isn't new. But when the World Health Organization makes a statement and changes its health recommendations and policies, this means there's pretty much no denying the fact any longer. And off the back of that, the University of Texas study feels like a very timely nail in the meat coffin.
But does meat really deserve this fate?
Maybe not. Because, while my particular eating leans towards paleo raw vegan with the occasional bone broth or cooked chickpea, I never like to see any person, place, or thing unjustly vilified. And I think there's a bit of this unjustified vilification going on with meat.
I am NOT about to tout out the lazy nutrition line that "nothing in moderation is bad for you." That is absolutely ludicrous, and personally, I can't think of a single legitimate case where that's true.
What I think is at the true heart of the two announcements is that NOT ALL MEAT IS CREATED EQUAL. There are some quite wonderful nutritive health properties of certain forms of animal protein. And there are some quite horrific death-inducing properties of other forms of animal protein.
What I believe this comes down to are three critical aspects of our food chain:
And, so, what the WHO announcement is actually vilifying is the conventional mass-agriculture, mass-production approach to meat. And it's a real shame that our scientific research methods haven't evolved yet to make this "conventional, mass-produced" versus "organic, whole-foods" distinction a standard variable clearly represented in the statistics.
The University of Texas research is at least a bit more specific, but it still has one major variable in the statistics--genetics. And when I say genetics, what I mean are the genes we know to be associated with higher carcinogenic risk from the byproducts of barbecuing, grilling, frying, and smoking meat. These genes are CYP1A2*1F and EPHX1 (catchy, right?).
These aren't the only genes that may play a role, but they are two of the most well-researched ones that occur with widespread variations across the human population. What these genes do is code for detoxification enzymes in the liver, and lots of us are so good at producing these enzymes that we inadvertently make the carcinogenic cooking compounds even more carcinogenic for a period of time before they finally leave our body. And it's this period of supped-up carcinogenicity that you REALLY want to be careful of. But since genetic variables aren't factored into the research statistics, the carcinogenic risk ends up being watered down to just an average--lots of people may have a quite lower risk and lots of people will have a much higher risk. So high that they absolutely should avoid barbecued, grilled, fried, and smoked meat. Not as an, "oh, well, but don't worry about it, a little bit is still fine" but as a "seriously, avoid this at all costs, imminent death awaits" sort of thing. The result is that everyone becomes kinda scared, but some people who are scared don't need to be while other people are not nearly scared enough. All you need to do is hop over to the comments section of any news article about these studies to see that most people are taking the, "whatever" approach.
But do you really want to play the "whatever" game with yourself? Testing for liver detoxification genes is simple and straight-forward and something that I routinely do with clients. You're then empowered to make informed decisions about how to interpret broad-sweeping announcement like "meat causes cancer." Because depending on the form, quality, and frequency, it might not, at least not for you.
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