Red and Processed Meats: Should We Be Eating Them?
One of the most eye opening things I learned in my time in my nutrition Masters program was the story behind red and processed meats. In a class completely dedicated to cancer as it relates to food, we dove into red and processed meat’s impact on the body. And while the theme of General Wellness is #FoodFreedom, I also want to be a responsible nutrition professional and be sure I’m giving you the fact as well! Don’t worry, my Texas blood will never let me completely part from BBQ - I don’t expect you to either. One of the most important things I want you to take away from this article is that knowledge is power when it comes to our health. If we’re not working with the most current and most accurate information, we can certainly be doing ourselves a disservice. The goal of General Wellness is and will always be to give you the science-based facts and help you #FindYourFreedom amidst the information, your goals, and food preferences.
Let’s clearly define what “red meat” and “processed meat” is. It’s important to define what each of these are before we go any further into how much and how often we should be consuming them. Red meat is all beef, lamb, and pork products. Processed meat is bacon and sausage of any form (including chicken sausage and turkey bacon), deli meat, cured meats, salami, hot dogs, etc. However things like fresh chicken (think breast, thighs, wings that are raw), turkey (like thanksgiving day turkey that you’re making whole like you would chicken), fish (all), and even products like ground turkey or ground chicken are NOT considered processed meats. Just because they combine a package doesn’t mean they’re processed, so don’t be confused. Have further questions about what is considered a processed meat? Contact me!
What’s the Recommendation for Each?
The recommendation from the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) for consuming red meat of any kind is to not consume more than 12-18 ounces per week. Does that mean you can’t EVER have a steak? Nope! Just probably not every day (unless it’s a super tiny steak). However, the recommendation from AICR on consuming processed meats is to avoid them as much as possible… so does this mean no more bacon? Unfortunately, it’s not recommended to consume even small amounts of these processed meats due to their carcinogenic properties (more on this below). Some research institutes deem processed meats a “definite form” of cancer as well - reason enough to avoid it when you are able. Read the rest of the AICR guidelines to prevent cancer HERE, as well as more information on red and processed meats from the Cancer Research UK HERE.
Again, the goal isn’t to steal your joy and love of bacon. The goal is to help you understand what is the healthiest thing for you and allow you to build your food habits around the facts while still maintaining #FoodFreedom.
Not sure what should be the foundation of a healthy diet? Check out exactly what you should be including HERE.
WHY Are Red and Processed Meats Harmful?
Processed meats such as bacon (from any animal), sausage (from any animal), and deli meat are considered to be class 1 carcinogens…the same as cigarettes. And red meat (beef, pork, lamb) is a class 2 carcinogen when consumed in large amounts. Red and processed meats have been shown to have a positive correlation (aka the more you eat, the more you’re at risk) with colorectal and prostate cancers when consumed in increasing amounts.
There are certain compounds in red and processed meats that are considered carcinogens (aka cancer causing). These compounds include: haem (a red pigment found mostly in red meat); nitrates and nitrites (used to keep processed meat fresher for longer); and heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines (produced when meat is cooked at high temperatures). All of these compounds damage the lining of our intestines and GI tract and the accumulation of that damage is what can lead to cancer occurrence.
Let’s break this down further:
Haem: this pigment will only be found in red meat products like beef, lamb, and pork. So, this is not a compound that’s relevant to processed meats unless they are made from these sources. This compound is inherently found in all red meat products though, and is thus unavoidable in ALL red meat. This is why there is a recommendation on the amount of red meat that can be consumed with less risk (as mentioned above: <12-18 oz/week)
Nitrates and nitrites: these compounds are typically added into processed meats only in order to keep them fresher longer. It’s possible that these can also be added into other meat products, but is more commonly added into all processed meats. This is the reason that deli meat (even though it may be turkey or chicken deli meat) can be a problem and is classified as a processed meat. Additionally, these are typically added into turkey bacon and chicken sausage as well, causing them to be classified as a processed meat and not be the healthiest options for us
Heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines: These are compounds that can form in ALL meat products (even non-red meat products) at very high temperatures. This is generally occurring because compounds in the meat are being super heated, react, and reattaches to the meat which we later consume. This high temperature is typically BBQ-ing temperatures or pan frying temperatures, not what you would cook at in an oven typically. The good news about this is that it can be avoided with different cooking methods. See below for more details on how to avoid these compounds from forming and being consumed in your food
That being said, there are things you can pair with your red meat to potentially combat these harmful components. These items would be your cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, and more! These vegetables actually have beneficial effects against cancer of the GI tract and increase overall health, making them perfect to pair with red meat when you are consuming it. Another quick tip would be to cook your red meat in a slow cooker, instant pot, or the oven to prevent the heterocyclic amines and polycyclic amines from forming as mentioned above - BBQ-ing and pan frying meat actually increases the oxidation of the fat when the drippings hit the flames and come back up and reattach to the meat. Using alternative cooking methods or marinading your meat (to lower ability for oxidized fat to reattach to the meat) can decrease the occurrence or consumption as well!
So, What Meat and Protein Should You Be Consuming?
Chicken (such as whole forms like breast, thigh, etc), any form of fish, turkey, and eggs would be great alternative options to red and processed meats. Ground chicken and ground turkey are also perfectly great options as well to replace ground beef in dishes you like! Other great protein options are plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, hummus, and edamame as well. There are plenty of ways to get your necessary protein intake other than red and processed meats, this just may take some creativity. Don’t worry - I’m always here for inspiration! The best place to find inspiration from General Wellness is through instagram HERE!
Still have more questions? Check out the red and processed meat highlight on our Instagram page HERE where we answered a ton of your meat-related questions! Again, the goal is to make swaps and adjustments to increase overall health, not to completely avoid your favorite foods at all costs. You will see red meat and processed meat even sprinkled throughout recipes on my website because as you know, I believe in total #FoodFreedom. I’m here to educate, support, and inspire you all to be the healthiest version of yourself that you can be. For you, (and for me) that means still occasionally enjoying red and processed meat while eating from a nutrition foundation of the healthiest foods day to day. If you are a beef and bacon lover, assess your current intake and see where you can make swaps. Need inspiration? Check out some of our favorite recipes below!