Does red meat really cause cancer?

In this video, I looked at the full text of the article “Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat”¬†that was released by International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lancet Oncology.

As a cancer researcher who does original research, it is a pet peeve of mine that research discovery can often get misinterpreted by the media. Doing scientific research is an arduous job, and we the researchers are often very careful with our words not to overstate our findings. In this case, the message is greatly misunderstood and it has taken the internet by the storm. Therefore, I take up the role to report this as accurately and balanced as possible to the public.

The IARC prefaced their report that red meat has nutritional value. While they categorize red and process meat as carcinogen, then made no nutritional recommendations. Rather, they suggest that risks and benefits be weighted in providing the best dietary recommendations.

The Lancet Oncology article states that the studies that led to their decisions to categorize these meats as carcinogen include many epidemiological studies and plausible mechanisms involving testing of individual chemicals found in cooked meats in animals. It seems that all available data in humans remains correlational, which doesn’t directly proof causation.

Cancer is a multifactorial disease that involves numerous factors. Rarely is one thing a sole cause of cancer. In addition, our bodies have our own anti-cancer mechanisms. There are 6 (and more recently updated to 8) hallmarks of cancers that cells have to acquire to become full-blown cancer. While consumption of cooked, processed or charred meats expose us to some cancer-causing chemicals, we are also eating other foods (like vegetables and fruits) that may counteract or worsen the potential cancer-causing effects. In addition, several cancer-causing compounds are generated by bacteria in the gut rather than directly from the meat.

By the way, the IARC considers yerba mate tea as a class 2A carcinogen, which I find interesting. Most other items on their class 1 and class 2A list do make sense, though.

My dietary recommendations based on this would be:

  1. Eat red meat as you wish, and also eat lots of vegetables to go with it.
  2. Cook the meats gently
  3. Avoid conventionally grown meats and dairy. Instead, consume grassfed, pastured meats.
  4. It may be beneficial to limit red and processed meats if it appears that colon cancer runs in your family. Perhaps see a genetic counselor who can analyze the family tree to decide if the predisposition is genetic or more environmental.

    Questions/comments: Please post below.

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