Did the news coverage of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) Review of Red Meat and Processed Meats that strung words together like tobacco, cancer, processed meats and asbestos leave you a little freaked out about what to pack for school lunches?
It’s not all bad news. After reviewing over 800 studies, the IARC report points to what I think we already knew. Let’s get this out of the way first.
Eating processed meat is not as bad as smoking tobacco.
Processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, deli meats (ham/salami/turkey/chicken), bacon and canned meats were put in the same, “carcinogenic to humans” category as tobacco.
That means there is science to support that these, “agents” could cause cancer. It has nothing do with an equally important question, realistically how likely is that to happen?
And to keep things in perspective, eating processed meats accounts for 34,000 deaths globally each year whereas smoking tobacco accounts for one million deaths.
If you love red meat you don’t have to give it up but…
Eat processed meats sparingly. Aside from the increased cancer risk, processed meats tend to be lower in protein and higher in fat, calories and sodium. Thankfully there are many other healthier meat and alternative choices such as:
- Beans (kidney, white, black)
- Lentils (red, green)
- Tofu, edamame, soy butter
- Fish (salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel) and seafood
- Red meats (beef, pork, lamb, goat)
- Poultry (chicken, turkey)
- Nuts, seeds, nut butters (almond butter, peanut butter, sunflower seed butter).
Did you know? Researchers report that since the 50’s they have seen, “sharp increases in calorie intake from ultra-processed foods over time”. We’d do well to swap all highly processed food with whole, minimally processed foods.
Try these processed meat free lunch ideas:
- Lunchbox Veggie-Cheese Muffin Frittatas
- Protein-Packed Edamame School Lunch Salad
- Fruity Chickpea and Couscous Salad
- Super Simple Quesadillas
- (Mr.) Cobb School Lunch Salad
- Speedy Meatball Minestrone
What about red meats like beef, lamb, goat, pork or veal?
Based on what the IARC describe as, “limited evidence” of, “positive associations” (not causes), red meat was classified as, “probably carcinogenic to humans”. As explained in the report, these associations could have been influenced, in part, by other factors. I take that to mean more research would be good but let’s err on the side of caution, can’t argue with that.
Red meats are full of nutrients needed for healthy growth and provide hunger-curbing protein. Bottom line, if you eat red meat, eat it in moderate amounts.
The data did not allow the IARC to set an amount of red meat to eat. Weekly limits for adults have been set by the American Institute for Cancer Research (18 ounces/week) and the Canadian Cancer Society (9 ounces/week).
I prefer the simplicity of the healthy plate approach rather than counting how much of this or that you eat per week. The idea is to cook meals at home using a variety of whole or minimally processed foods in these proportions:
- 1/4 lean proteins
- 1/2 vegetables and fruit
- 1/4 whole grains.
The good old Canada’s Food Guide has been telling us for years to:
- Choose meat alternatives (beans, tofu, nuts, edamame) often;
- Eat fish at least twice a week;
- Choose a variety of foods from the meat and alternatives group and;
- Keep cooked meat portions to about the size of a deck of cards (75 grams).
If we do this, I believe we will end up eating red meat in moderate amounts.
So there you have it. Limit processed meats and eat red meat in moderate amounts.
It’s not so scary or complicated after all!
How do you try to cut back on deli meats in school lunches?
What would you like me to cover in upcoming posts?
Find out more:
- Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat, The Lancet Oncology
- Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat