Is There a War on Delicious Meat…Or On Our Health?

November 13, 2015

The headlines blared from every national (and international news outlet): “Processed Meat Causes Cancer, says WHO.” The World Health Organization now says pretty definitively that eating processed meat such as sausages and ham causes cancer, while unprocessed red meat may also be carcinogenic.

The WHO’s cancer research unit now classifies processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” based on evidence from hundreds of studies, and linked it specifically to colon, or colorectal, cancer.

The report outlined that eating a mere 50 grams of processed meat each day — the equivalent of two slices of ham, six slices of bacon, 1 hot dog or 5 slices of hard salami — can increase the risk of such cancer by 18%.

(Source: Marianna Stern WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer; USDA national nutrient database for standard reference, National Cancer Institute)

Everyone freaked out.

Some people joked, like Jimmy Kimmel quipping that bacon was worth dying for with Stephen Colbert adding that vegetarians are boring. Interviews here in my home town, Philadelphia, had people saying they weren’t worried; nothing could make them give up bacon, etc.

Time magazine ran an article called “The War on Delicious” declaring “Like it or not, somewhere deep in even the most devoted vegan are the genes that crave meat.” Seriously?

Meat industry lobby groups lashed out saying that the report is biased and misleading, implying that the data was manipulated to ensure a specific outcome.

“As a registered dietitian and mother, my advice hasn’t changed,” said Shalene McNeill, an executive director at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. “To improve all aspects of your health, eat a balanced diet, which includes lean meats like beef, maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and, please don’t smoke.”

Please don’t smoke? Could that be a wee diversion from discussing the impact of meat on our health?

As vegetarians did the happy dance because their long-held beliefs were finally being vindicated, I was saddened by people’s reaction to these facts. I know everyone loves the taste and richness of bacon. I get it. I ate it. My butcher father proudly served it to us. But these are not facts to be taken lightly, even with the smattering of experts advising us not to panic saying these new results are not conclusive; our meat is safe, etc. In my humble opinion, you can lump these experts together with climate change deniers. They’re way off the mark, but people will listen to them as long as they’re saying what we want to hear.

Why can’t we change our ways and make healthier choices? Some cynics (I’m talking to you, Bill Maher) say we are too stupid as a people to act in our best interests. I just can’t let myself believe that.

I don’t think people are stupid. I think we want the best for ourselves and for those we love. I think we have been conditioned to love fat, sugar and salt and leaving those behind presents us with challenges. I think we have been socially and culturally conditioned to believe a meal has to include an animal product in order to be satisfying.

If we give up animal products-meat, dairy, poultry, fish, eggs and cheese, what do we eat? Is our life reduced to tofu and sprouts? Will we feel deprived and grimly endure life never looking forward to a meal because it won’t include bacon?

There’s a lot of confusion about what to eat. We have been marketed to about meat and our health. We’ve been sold a bill of goods that meat can play a hearty role in a healthy lifestyle. Now that we’re all hooked, the bad news is released.

It’s just like cigarettes. We went from super-cool James Dean wannabes to eschewing tobacco, but it wasn’t an easy path. It took serious shaming for that industry to own up to what it knew for a long time: cigarettes kill us.

Now it’s meat. And while I am not in favor of a nanny state that tells us what to do and eat, I am in favor of the truth. The truth has been revealed to us, in my view and we can’t spend years more watering down the facts so lobby groups are happy and we continue to ponder how we lost our health over our plate of bacon and eggs.

None of this is new information. Warnings go back a long way, but as recently as 2007 a study done by the American Institute for Cancer Research directed our attention to the link between meat consumption and multiple forms of cancer. In 2009, the NIH warned us of meat consumption and an increased risk of death from cancer and heart disease. According to Dr. David Katz, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center, “It’s been known a long time that part of the processing of meats introduces carcinogens into the mix, particularly nitrates.”

We are told as little as 50 grams of meat contributes to increased cancer risk, so Time ends their article saying that we simply have to find the balance of how much meat we can healthfully consume so we can “honor our cultural DNA” and retain our health. That’s like saying one cigarette a day is still okay.

While we are omnivores, able to adapt to a diet of plant and animal products, the truth is deeper than whether or not we eat meat, but the way meat has been transformed for modern production. The meat of our grandparents was very different nutritionally than the meat of today. Factory farming has completely changed the game and it’s not rigged in our favor. With growth hormones, steroids, GMO feed, antibiotics, pesticides, herbicides and toxins from animal waste, our meat is not the meat of our fond memories. If we continue to eat more than 71 pounds of meat per person, we will continue to lose our health.

Someone recently asked me why I care so much what we eat. What does it matter to me if people eat bacon and increase their risk of cancer? Is it about the pigs and cows? Yes…and no. While it certainly is your right to choose your food, your choice has an impact on the planet I share with you, on living creatures and more important, on my healthcare costs. I pay for the cavalier attitude that bacon is worth dying for with higher healthcare premiums.   

Eating a plant-based diet is varied, delicious and absolutely satisfying. I know that won’t convince a meat and bacon lover that they won’t…for a period of time…miss their beloved cured and processed meats.

A Google search for vegetarian recipes yields more than 68,000,000 results. A search for plant-based yields almost 6,000,000 while vegan recipes yields more than 45,000,000 giving us access to more than 100 million recipes that are plant-based. If you can’t find something satisfying with 100 million options to choose from, perhaps you’re not really looking.