Hey guys! I’m a little late with the blog this week because I was in NYC this weekend, which, among many other awesome things, may be the official home of the street meat! And here I am, eating a hot dog on the steps of The Met. Sooo New Yorky!
But obviously this hot dog is deadly! Why? Because, as we have all heard by now from the soon-to-be-published report by the World Health Organization (WHO), processed meat will give us cancer and kill us, KILL US DEAD! Everyone panic NOW!
If you haven’t guessed, I’m being a little facetious. The WHO report, while definitely interesting, is also an example of science reporting gone a little bad. The WHO has now categorized processed meats (anything salted, cured, or smoked) as “carcinogenic to humans.” While this is the same category that contains asbestos and smoking, the WHO was careful to point out that this did not mean processed meats are equally as dangerous as those other things. You know, just to make it really confusing.
So let’s break it down to see what kind of danger we’re looking at. First, the WHO estimates that deaths from diets high in processed meats contribute to 34,000 cancer deaths per year worldwide, out of 8.2 million total cancer deaths worldwide (2012 data). That’s 0.4% of cancer deaths attributed to diets high in processed meats (which obviously is different than diets that occasionally include processed meats). That’s less than 1 percent!
Secondly, the WHO estimates a diet high in processed meats (50 g of processed meat daily) can increase your risk of colon cancer by 18%. Yikes! But wait, the article said that our initial risk of that type of cancer is already pretty low. It didn’t say how low, so I looked it up on the CDC website and found some numbers. So, for example, if you are 50 years old, your 10 year risk of getting colon cancer is 0.68% (note, this goes up as age increases). An 18% increased risk would then give you a 0.8% risk — mind you, this is if you have a diet that is high in processed meats. Meaning at least two servings a day of processed meats (the article’s example was two slices of ham weighing 50 g or ~2 oz daily). So no matter what, your overall risk factor is pretty low (if you have a family history, I’m guessing your risk factor will increase).
I’m not saying all this to convince you that a diet high in processed meats is good for you and to start pounding SPAM on a daily basis. We’ve all known for years that large quantities of processed meats are probably not good for us – now we just have some useful data. What I’m saying is that there really doesn’t seem to be a need to panic and forego all your favorite “fun” foods forevermore. I do think this is important information, but I have seen firsthand how some (many) people react to this kind of advice: by immediately restricting or eliminating foods, sometimes to the point where there is nothing left for them to enjoy. While we can always use good nutritional guidance, we really don’t need more food fear.
So while processed meats are not exactly “health foods” by any definition, like so many other past demonized foods (sugar, salt, read meat, white carbs, coffee, fat, fruit, everything), if you like it, eating it now and again within a balanced diet probably isn’t going to shorten your life significantly. Is eating a diet heavy in processed meats every day good for you? No, of course not, but that is not a diet in balance. If you find yourself eating a monotonous diet of the same foods every single day, you’re going to miss out on some important stuff (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals we probably don’t even know the names of yet). Variety and balance are key. Joanne Arena MS, RD offers some wonderful advice here on how to balance your diet while still including your favorite processed meats.
Working in a hospital, I’ve met all sorts of eaters. Some have been very strict, “healthy” eaters. Others ate a lifetime diet high in overly refined foods and not enough fruits and vegetables (the things you learn about people as a dietitian!). Both types of eaters had something in common: they were sick with something in the hospital. Poor health can still happen to anyone regardless of how vigilant we are. Of course we want to reduce our risk of getting sick as much as we can, and that includes trying to eat a healthy balanced diet, but there is really no way to ensure complete elimination of disease risk. And we still need to enjoy our diets.
One of my patients early in my career had been a lovely lady who said she normally ate a diet of only whole, organic foods. I apologized that she was not going to get an organic diet during her hospital stay. It didn’t matter, she said, as she couldn’t hold any food down anyway. It turned out her small bowel obstruction was from a tumor in her colon that had metastasized and was, at this point, incurable. She had spent her life eating fresh, whole foods, but she got sick and was going to die anyway. I always hoped that she had enjoyed that diet while she was on it and had not only done it for disease prevention.
I’m not trying to dissuade you from eating as healthfully as you can, because we do have good data that a balanced diet high in a variety of fresh foods and lots of fruits and vegetables can help us reduce our risk of many diseases (and tastes yummy!). What I am telling you is that we are not 100% in control of our health, that poor health can happen to anyone, none of us escapes death, and that if a hot dog or pepperoni on your pizza makes you happy, you shouldn’t be terrified to enjoy it once in a while. The key is balance and variety, not elimination!
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