The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization, recently released a report regarding red and processed meats and cancer that has left many health professionals and scientists alike wondering how the group came to the published conclusions. We’re left with misunderstandings and huge communication gaps between what the headlines suggest and what the report states.
Bottom line: It’s impossible to assess the impact of red meat consumption in isolation, and it’s unrealistic to single out one food that can cause or cure cancer.
The IARC's mission is to review pre-existing research on cancer to determine potential causes and to evaluate the carcinogenicity of specific substances. They group each substance into a category according to how "hazardous" they decide the substance may be.
The nature of the studies available to the IARC committee represented an overall diet and lifestyle pattern — that is, combined diet and lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, low fruit and vegetable consumption and insufficient physical activity. These types of studies cannot address isolated red meat consumption, and therefore, no direct cause and effect relationship can be established.
So, do red and processed meats cause cancer? Let me make it easy for you: No. Despite billions of dollars spent on research, even the world’s smartest minds don’t fully understand the complexity of cancer. The IARC working group couldn’t even agree on their own findings.
Fear and confusion is what I have heard this week from people I’ve talked with about this. It’s what I hear almost daily. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, it’s my responsibility to translate sound, evidenced-based science in a way that can reduce the fear and confusion consumers receive on a daily basis in regards to food, nutrition and health.
What we do know from science that the best solution to chronic disease is to eat a healthy, balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, stay physically active and, of course, not smoke.
It still remains true that red and processed meats deliver a bundle of essential nutrients to our diet — even IARC’s Lancet report acknowledges this fact. It’s important to choose a variety of foods based on your individual needs while being mindful of following a healthy dietary pattern. You can continue to enjoy red meat as a great-tasting food that provides a reliable source of essential nutrients such as iron, zinc and high-quality protein.
Balance and variety may not make the headlines because the concept has been around forever. Its longevity proves that it works. Let’s focus efforts on simple, proven truths instead of fear-mongering headlines linked to one overreaching report.
Most of us have had a family member or friend who has faced cancer. We all want to take measures to prevent and combat this horrible disease. Based on the scientific evidence, eliminating or even limiting a single food is not the answer.
It’s easy to get caught up in the headlines and the studies of the day, but the best thing you can do to prevent chronic disease is live a healthy lifestyle full of variety and balance. Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist to learn more about your individual risk and a healthy dietary pattern.