WHO tells us what to do.
In recent times, World Health Organization (WHO) reports, have recommended limiting intake of meat, in particular red meat and processed meats, on the basis that they can cause cancer. Are they right?
In order to answer ‘the meat question’, I’m going to talk about some things that have been shown by science (some to do with processed meats, and some to do with red meat, or just meat consumption generally), that might be responsible for increasing degenerative disease risk, cancer included. I’ll also talk about some things about meat, that make it pro-metabolic and protective for health, even cancer. Confusing right? Not really.
Not once you keep in mind, that simply saying ‘eating meat is good for you’, or ‘eating meat is bad for you’, has very little real meaning. ‘Eating meat’ can mean so many different things today. It’s not even enough to limit the discussion to red meat or to processed meat. To make sense of meat questions, you really need a better awareness of all the details and potential differences, which can alter the way you’ll see the impact meat eating can have, in a particular situation.
There are many different kinds of meat on the market today. Even in the case of red meat or processed meat, the meat comes from different animals, with varying amino acid profiles, a wide range of fat quantities, and different fatty acid compositions. On top of this, especially with ‘processed meats’, there are lots of harmful, potentially toxic ingredients, added into some, and not into others.
The types of animals that are used to supply meat, vary significantly physiologically, often having completely different methods of digesting and assimilating food. As a result of this, different diets can have a big impact upon the makeup of meat from an animal, and the effect it can have upon human health.
Keeping some of these things in mind, it can become much easier to see in the first place, why blanket claims and recommendations, like those made in recent times by the WHO, are misleading and unhelpful. And that can be obvious, without needing to look at the issues in great detail.
What I hope to do, is provide some useful information, about some of the things that can influence when ‘meat’ is and isn’t healthy, to help with questions regarding meat eating in general, not just red meat or processed meat. There is lots of relevant science, which can help with making decisions about if and when to eat meat, and what kind, and how much. But it helps to see it all put together in a logical way. I’m not a dietician or a nutritionist or doctor, but hopefully I can help make a bit of sense out of what is already known by more qualified people.
For starters, there’s the fat content of meat. Different cuts of meat from different kinds of animals, have different quantities and compositions of fat. It doesn’t matter if it’s red or white, or processed, the type and amount of fat in meat, can make a big difference to the impact eating it has upon health and disease, and that includes the risk of cancer.
Contrary to popular opinion, there is a large amount of evidence showing that it is the saturated fats which are safe, even protective for humans. And there is also lots of science showing the inflammatory, metabolism damaging, cancer promoting effects, of the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs). How much of the PUFAs are in a cut of meat, is determined, at least in part by the animal type, as well as by the diet fed to the animal.
Ruminant animals (beef, lamb, goat etc.) have little in the way of PUFAs stored in their tissue. A high polyunsaturated fat diet produces only a small increase in the unsaturated fat levels stored in ruminant animals, as it is mostly able to be converted by their specially designed digestive system, into the more stable saturated fats.
On the other hand, the fat content of non ruminant animals, like pigs or horses or chickens etc, closely reflects the fat found in the foods that they eat. Feeding them corn and soy beans, for instance, rather than their natural diet, significantly increases the quantity of PUFAs stored in their tissue, making them less healthy, and making consuming them far more damaging to human health. Fish and the omega-3’s is something I talk about in other articles, but the fat in most fish is polyunsaturated. Enough said for now.
The PUFAs found in different meats, when consumed in large enough amounts, over a long enough time, accumulate in storage, and become involved in many stressful, metabolism interfering, inflammatory processes. Eating PUFAs, can also directly inhibit digestion, and interfere with utilization of helpful nutrients found in meat.
The PUFAs are unstable inside the human body, and easily break down into many highly inflammatory, metabolism damaging substances. The PUFAs and their break down products have been closely tied to cancer progression in a variety of different ways.
Many of the processed meats are made with pork (and the fat in pork today is filled with PUFAs due to the modern diet of the pigs), and these products also usually have the cheap seed oils (and other PUFAs) added into them, making their fat content even more polyunsaturated in composition, increasing the disease promoting potential.
Dietary nitrates are often added in to processed meats as a preservative, and are associated with increased stress and inflammation, promoting the production of nitric oxide, which, when systemically raised, is known to powerfully suppress metabolic function, as well as being involved in cancer development and spread.
When metabolism is already suppressed or damaged, the nitrates and nitrites in food (and the amino acid arginine in meat), can be more easily converted into nitric oxide, which further suppresses oxidative metabolism, interfering with the use of oxygen, an important reason behind the onset of cancer.
The combination of the PUFAs and nitric oxide, makes for the creation of even more inflammatory, anti-metabolic conditions, and this is an important part of what is responsible for the bad reputation of meat.
The safest meats are likely to be those which come from the ruminant animals, like cows and sheep. Processed meats can be made safer, if they get produced minus the addition of the polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs), and without the harmful ingredients like the nitrates, and a long list of other inflammatory things. Keep in mind there are some potential issues with high fat diets, even when the fat is mostly saturated. And aged meats tend to be high in histamine and bacterial endotoxin, which promote inflammation.
The next thing to think about is the amino acids that make up protein in meat. Different amino acid profiles found in different cuts of meat, can be something which has a significant influence upon the impact regular meat consumption, has upon health.
The amino acid profile of popular (and more expensive) muscle meat cuts, includes higher amounts of the potentially inflammatory amino acids (like methionine, tryptophan and cystine), and when consumed regularly and in large amounts, there is evidence showing these amino acids can promote inflammatory disease, including cancer.
The cheaper, gelatinous cuts of meat, on the other hand, have more of an anti-inflammatory, cancer protective amino acid profile. Gelatin/collagen is high in glycine for instance, and glycine is a powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer amino acid. Balancing inflammatory amino acids in the muscle meats, with gelatin, is one way to protect against inflammation from lots of meat consumption.
It’s common today however, to avoid the cheaper gelatinous cuts (oxtail, osso bucco etc) that make up a big percentage of an animal (and in the past were always eaten), choosing instead to only eat more tender muscle meats. This is a reason why eating lots of meat the modern way, can be responsible for increasing inflammatory factors, which can promote cancer.
Just a tablespoon of gelatin or collagen, consumed with a serve of meat, can go a long way towards improving amino acid balance. Also the gelatinous meats, when cooked the right way, are actually delicious, and usually cheaper.
The next thing to keep in mind, relates to the phosphorous in meat, as high phosphorous intake (and the ratio of phosphorous to calcium consumption), is something which has been demonstrated to impact upon inflammation and disease, again including cancer.
Too much phosphorus (especially when not balanced with sufficient consumption of calcium), is known to be able to cause an increase in parathyroid hormone (PTH), and high PTH is associated with the promotion of inflammation, with many varieties of cancer, and with lots of other inflammatory metabolic diseases.
Most meats (as well as seeds, grains, beans and legumes etc) are high in phosphorus, and have insufficient levels of calcium. Dairy products, on the other hand (as well as leafy green vegetables), have a good ratio of calcium to phosphorus.
A safe ratio is probably around 1:1, whereas many people today are consuming more like a ratio of 10:1 phosphorus to calcium. Over time, this can be a big part of what promotes a high stress, high inflammation, suppressed metabolism, which makes the development of cancer more likely.
Looking at it this way, it makes sense to either limit your intake of meat to some degree, increasing consumption of dairy products (or well cooked leafy greens), or maybe to use a calcium supplement like eggshell calcium, to improve the ratio, and help bring down inflammation.
A high fat diet is also something that can interfere with metabolic function, in part by inhibiting the use of sugar by the cell, interfering with optimal energy production. This makes sense, to help deal with times when sugar sources are unavailable (for example during a harsh winter or a famine of some sort), to protect against malnutrition and starvation, temporarily reducing nutritional requirements. But it’s probably not a good way to try to achieve long term optimal health.
Historically, the fat consumed and stored in the body was mostly saturated, and the stable saturated fats, have been shown to be protective and anti-inflammatory, and do not cause the cascade of inflammatory issues that arise as a result of excessive exposure to the unstable PUFAs, and their break down products. The human body produces saturated fats, in order to store away excess unused energy from sugar. A high fat diet however, even one using high saturated fat foods, still generally causes exposure to a significant amount of PUFAs.
A diet high in meat consumption, limiting intake of carbohydrates or sugar, is likely going to include more fat, and too much of the PUFAs, and this kind of scenario can mimic (or enhance) the effects of externally stressful circumstances (like a cold winter for example), promoting stress and inflammation, inhibiting energy production, eventually increasing the risk of diseases, like cancer.
Under these kinds of conditions, the stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, tend to increase, encouraging the greater release and systemic circulation of a number of other stress related substances (such as nitric oxide, lactate, estrogen, serotonin and PUFAs out of storage), all of which play a role in inflammation and cancer promotion.
One way which has been suggested to protect against this possibility, is to reduce fat intake (especially PUFAs but also fat in general to some degree), and gradually increase carbohydrate intake from easily digestible sources, as a means to improving overall blood sugar regulation and cellular energy production. Blood sugar dysregulation is a major factor in relation to inflammatory disease, including cancer, and is intertwined with stress and exposure to the byproducts of the PUFAs, and the stress substances like nitric oxide.
Interference with metabolism from too much fat exposure (particularly PUFAs) and other ‘meat eating’ related stresses, also promotes bacterial endotoxin circulation and impact, and this is another big cause of inflammation and blood sugar dysregulation, which has also been shown to be closely involved with cancer development. The combination of nutritious, good quality protein, some saturated fats, and lots of sugar from easily digestible sources, can help increase digestive function, and reduce bacterial issues. Reducing systemic endotoxin exposure, protects against overall stress and inflammation, and lowers disease risk.
A moderate protein diet (usually around 80-120g per day), using the less inflammatory gelatinous cuts of meat, and plenty of milk and cheese, reasonably low in fat (avoiding PUFAs as much as possible), and high in carbohydrates from sweet ripe fruits and juices, white sugar, and honey (as well as potatoes if tolerated as a good sugar and protein source), is one potential approach to protecting against inflammation and disease.
Although it’s been shown that there are some short term benefits to eating even higher amounts of protein, in the long term this can come with additional issues, depending on the source of protein, and whether or not there is enough fuel available to protect against energy system suppression, inflammation, and stress.
Iron dysregulation, from excessive intake and tissue storage of iron, can result from long term high meat consumption, and it is another factor involved in the progression of inflammatory disease, and a well know driver of cancer. The PUFAs and bacterial endotoxin exposure are intertwined with this issue.
I don’t know of any good reason, generally speaking, why meat cannot be consumed as part of a healthy, disease protective diet, but that does not mean that all meats are made equal, and it also doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to use meat (or fat for that matter) to make up the majority of a diet.
I should say however, that bacon is good for the soul, and is worth eating occasionally, just for this reason alone.