It isn't the first time—and likely won't be the last time—that meat is on the hot seat. Just last week, an article raised an alarm on the perils associated with eating processed meat. Like wildfire, the article spread across Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites. This likely caused some parents to panic, and others to feel validated for taking meat off their family menu.
Published by The Institute for Natural Healing (INH), self-described as "Your Source for Natural Health Breakthroughs From Across the Globe," the article cites an extensive review by the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), a UK-based charity focused on cancer prevention. Based on the WCRF review of more than 7,000 clinical studies that examine the link between diet and cancer, the INH article concluded that "processed meats are too dangerous for consumption" and that "consumers should stop buying and eating all processed meat products for the rest of their lives."
In response, the WCRF put out a press release to say that they had nothing to do with the article. They also reiterated their official stance on processed meat:
"World Cancer Research Fund International recommends avoiding processed meat. This is the conclusion of an independent panel of leading scientists who, following the biggest review of international research ever undertaken, judged the evidence that processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer to be convincing. This review was done in 2007 and was subsequently confirmed in 2011."
The press release went on to say,
"The articles talking about processed meat being 'too dangerous for human consumption' are unhelpful and scaremongering. We would say that if people can't cut out processed meat completely they should cut down. WCRF International advocates a sensible, healthy, balanced diet."
In another response to the INH article, the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR)—an independent, evidence-based research organization and partner of the WCFR—suggests reading past the spin to find the science. In a blog post, the AICR summed up its bottom line:
"Processed meats like hot dogs and bacon are a cause of colorectal cancer. Even small amounts, if eaten regularly, increase the risk. They should not be everyday foods. In fact, we recommend avoiding them."
The AICR also added,
"That doesn't mean, however, that you can't enjoy them on special occasions—a ham at Easter, a hot dog at a ball game. Because when it comes to lowering cancer risk, it's what you do most of the time that matters, not the infrequent indulgence."
Wise words, don't you think?
If you're concerned about the potential health perils associated with eating a lot of meat or processed meat, and rather not eat it yourself or feed it to your children, that's certainly your choice. You can find great ideas for meatless dishes on the Meatless Monday web site here.
But if you want to include red meat (like lean beef) in your family's diet, you shouldn't feel guilty about doing so. Studies suggest lean beef—a source of high quality protein, healthy fats (including monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats) and vital nutrients like B vitamins and zinc—can be part of a nutritious diet. Current Dietary Guidelines for Americans include red meat as high quality protein food option that can be included in a healthy balanced diet.
If you enjoy the taste of meat and want to continue to feed it to your family, it's prudent to follow the AICR guidelines. If you know you and your family currently eat a lot of processed meats—deli meats like sliced turkey and bologna, bacon, ham, hot dogs, pastrami, salami and sausage—consider going cold turkey (apologies for the pun) in your home. If you don't feel that's realistic, see how much your family consumes weekly and reduce amounts until you've substantially cut your intake. Choose other protein foods like fresh roasted, broiled or grilled skinless poultry and lean beef or pork when you grocery shop or order food at a deli or restaurant. Limit processed meats, if you choose to have them at all, to a once-in-a-while treat while traveling or on a special occasion.
In addition to reducing, limiting or avoiding processed meat, the AICR urges us to cap intake of cooked red meat including beef, lamb and pork to less than 18 ounces weekly to reduce cancer risk.
One great way parents and their kids can cut back on red meat is to think of it as an accessory rather than a star of meals. You can pair a small portion (two to three ounces) of sirloin or flank steak with colorful vegetables in a stir fry and serve with brown or wild rice. Or you can top a stir fry with some shredded cheese and serve in a warm whole grain tortilla or taco shell.
Another way to cut back on red meat is to swap half of the red meat you'd usually use to make a casserole or crock pot dish with beans (black beans and lentils are two of our family favorites). Or you can replace the red meat you'd usually eat with skinless chicken breast or fish—something many of us, including our kids, don't eat enough of anyway—a couple of times each week. Serve alongside a colorful salad or other vegetable and a starch like a small potato, or half a cup of whole wheat pasta or brown or wild rice.
To make your meat even more safe to eat, cook it to safe internal temperatures, and avoid charring it on your grill.
How does your family curb or replace meat on your menu?
Image of little girl eating a hot dog via Shutterstock.