Food for thought: The case for meat

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(Geoff Stellfox and Gabriella Mikiewicz / The DePaulia)

Let’s start with the obvious, and not be coy about it.

Red and processed meat is delicious. That’s why the recent World Health Organization’s (WHO) report outlining how diets heavy in red and processed meats increase your risk of colorectal cancer is so troubling to me. Growing up, we never had to be reprimanded for not finishing our bacon before leaving the table. This distinction was reserved for Brussels sprouts, asparagus and the like.  A world without bacon, steak and encased meat almost seems too depressing to bear, and luckily, we don’t have to live there.

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We all want to eat meat. Many of your vegetarian friends may lecture you about the moral and health deficiencies of a meat-based diet, but we have all caught them at one point or another making eyes at that juicy cheeseburger on our plate, with a look of lust usually reserved only for lost lovers. This desire will continue for all of us, even in spite of the WHO study.

Now that we’ve established the desire, let’s tackle that pesky issue of it possibly causing colorectal cancer. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no dietician or food scientist — I am but a humble man who has nightmares of a world where I have to eat my bacon 15 feet away from any public establishment next to the smokers. In light of my ignorance, I asked a few experts to gain a better understanding of the risks involved.

(Graphic by Michelle Krichevskya and Katie Tamousinas).

(Graphic by Michelle Krichevskya and Katie Tamousinas).

“The studies say that just two pieces of ham a day increase the risk by 18 percent, but the general risk is already very low,” Ashley Gans, a physical chemistry researcher at Notre Dame said. “For example, increasing a 10 percent risk by 18 percent gets you to a 11.8 percent risk in total. That’s really not that great of a difference. The actual risk of developing colorectal cancer is significantly lower than 10 percent, and that difference is even smaller still. Two pieces of ham is not going to give you cancer. However, if you eat 100 pieces of ham a day the risk is increased by an even higher percentage. It’s all about moderation.”

[box]Read: Vegetarian is healthier, kinder[/box]

Although I certainly fall into the camp of people who think eating 100 pieces of ham a day sounds appealing, moderation does seem to be most important takeaway. “The World Health Organization’s announcement won’t change my eating habits,” Clint Yonkers, a food scientist at the meat packing company Land O’Frost, said. “In my opinion, these products are fine in a well balanced diet with regular exercise. Too much of anything is a bad thing and I think moderation is key.” Moderation doesn’t even have to be a sacrifice. You can enjoy that bacon double cheeseburger one day and have chicken or fish the next.

If you’re all in on red meat, though, there are changes you can help minimize negative health effects. Amy Silver, a registered dietician at Fitness Formula Clubs Oak Park, recommends choosing grass-fed, organic beef and nitrate free deli meat.

“Animals that are grass-fed are not fed the processed grains that other animals consume, and therefore grass-fed beef is higher in nutrients and healthy fats,” she said. “Additionally, I would recommend cooking red meat at a lower temperature. Although there is not enough research to show whether or not high heat causes cancer, there are some carcinogenic chemicals that are produced when the meat is in direct contact with a flame or hot surface, such as barbecuing or pan-frying. Choosing deli meat that is ‘nitrate-free’ and ‘organic’ is also a good choice, as well as grass-fed beef.”

Meat is not the enemy. On the contrary, red meat, and even processed meats can be a very important component of a well-balanced diet. But most importantly, they are all delicious. Although the risks of developing colorectal cancer are low, by diversifying what you eat and finding time to exercise you can enjoy that steak guilt-free. Despite the bleak outlook the WHO report describes, you don’t need to surrender your bacon and join the vegans just yet.