You may have read articles or heard stories about the recent World Health Organization (WHO)’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) ruling on red meat. Unfortunately, the ruling stirred up quite a bit of fear and panic, so let’s go through what the IARC is, what the ruling means, and what actions should be taken for nutrition and health.
What’s the IARC and what does this have to do with red and processed meat?
IARC is part of the World Health Organization and three times a year, IARC forms working groups to evaluate how something (like certain occupational chemicals, foods, or even the sun) impacts the risk of cancer in people.
This quarter, they reviewed red and processed meat and released their report, classifying red meat as ‘Group 2A’ and processed meat as ‘Group 1’ (more on the classification definitions here).
What do these classifications mean?
Group 1 is defined as ‘carcinogenic to humans’ and Group 2A is defined as ‘probably carcinogenic to humans.’
IARC specifies that its classifications “do not measure the likelihood that cancer will occur (technically called “risk”) as a result of exposure to the agent.” The classifications also don’t capture consideration of quantity- for example, alcohol and sunlight are both Group 1.
It’s well established that overexposure to (or overconsumption of) both sunlight and alcohol comes with major health risks. That doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to moderate levels of exposure (hello vitamin D!) to things like sunlight. Dr. Roger Clemens, a noted toxicologist points out the need to put IARC’s ruling in perspective:
“These rulings discuss hazard, but they’re reported as risk. For example, sunlight (hazard) is needed for vitamin D synthesis, yet excessive exposure increases one’s risk of skin cancer. Alcohol is a known liver toxin (hazard), yet when consumed in moderation (exposure) it reduces risk of developing adverse cardiovascular events. There are many more examples like these. The Lancet article is clear that the evidence is weak or inconsistent. Importantly, IARC notes that its role is to identify hazard, not causality.”
How does this impact my diet?
Meat can certainly be part of a healthful, balanced diet, and the key is moderation. Just like sun exposure, too much may increase your health risks, but too little can leave you missing valuable nutrients. At this point, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans haven’t issued recommendations for quantity of meat in the diet. However, the Guidelines have encouraged lean proteins, along with whole grains and vegetables, for a healthful balanced diet. Keep your plate balanced, and be sure to watch your portion sizes.
What is a correct portion size?
The right portion size is a cooked 3-ounce serving of lean beef—about the size of a standard deck of playing cards. Of course, total calories, protein, and other nutrients will differ based on the type of meat. There are more than 30 cuts of lean meat in grocery stores; find your favorite, and enjoy with portion sizes in mind!
It’s important to remember that there’s a lot of variety within ‘processed meats’ too – it’s worth the time to check the nutrition info on your food to scope out the valuable stuff (Protein! Vitamins!) and make sure it fits in your calorie budget. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report included 3 USDA dietary patterns, which suggest the amount of food to meet recommended nutrient intakes at various calorie levels. The 2000 calorie diet includes recommendations for 12.5 ounces of meat (or equivalent) per week, approximately 4 servings, to meet nutrient needs.
What are some nutritional benefits of eating red meat?
Turns out, there are many benefits of eating red meat. Up first: protein.
Lean red meat is one of the best protein sources that we can eat, containing roughly 21-25g per 3 ounce serving. The protein found in red meat, as with all other animal products, is considered a complete protein source. This means that it provides our bodies with all the essential amino acids in the right amounts. Protein is not just associated with building bigger muscles- it also is responsible for the growth and repair of all our tissues, organs, and bones. Proteins facilitates the transportation of oxygen and nutrients through our bloodstream and across cell membranes. Proteins are essential for DNA replication, which is important for cellular turnover, and are key components of your immune system, which is critical for fighting disease! Protein also plays an important role in weight loss and weight maintenance as it contributes to the feeling of being full.
Red meat also contains a variety of highly bioavailable nutrients, including heme iron, zinc, and B-vitamins. Studies have shown that heme iron and zinc from animal sources are more easily transported across the membranes in our gut, aiding in the absorption of these minerals. This means that we get more bang for our buck in terms of iron and zinc from red meat. Iron is necessary for red blood cell health, oxygen transport, enzyme production, and mental development.
Zinc, on the other hand, plays an important role in boosting immune function, regulating hormones, and healing wounds. The high riboflavin content of red meat further facilitates the proper storage and facilitation of iron in our bodies. Additionally, red meat is a source of a variety of antioxidants, such as carnosine, anserine, and lipoic acid among others. These antioxidants protect against cellular damage and decrease the risk of excessive inflammation.
So what does this all mean and what should you do moving forward?
Bottom line, meat is an excellent source of protein and other important nutrients we are lacking in our diets. It packs a great nutritional punch. By controlling portion sizes and choosing lean cuts, red and processed meat can be part of a healthful diet.