How Much Meat Is It Safe to Eat?

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Raw SteakPancreatic cancer, though relatively uncommon, has received more attention as of late because it is what claimed the lives of Apple CEO Steve Jobs and actor Patrick Swayze.

According to the American Cancer Society’s most recent estimates for 2012, about 43,920 people will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, and 37,390 people will die of the disease. In other words, 85 percent of people who develop pancreatic cancer will die from it. This is a staggering statistic.

Little is known about the causes of pancreatic cancer, but some factors have been shown to increase your risk, including smoking/tobacco use, obesity, and having certain health conditions like type 2 diabetes, chronic pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas), and cirrhosis of the liver. Unfortunately, however, other than avoiding tobacco products and practicing good lifestyle habits, research on how to prevent this disease is sorely lacking, especially when compared to more common cancers like breast, colorectal and prostate.

For this reason, researchers in Stockholm wanted to explore the relationship between red and processed meat consumption and the development of pancreatic cancer.[1]

In this meta-analysis, researchers looked at 11 studies and a total of 6,643 pancreatic cancer cases. They found that an increase in red meat consumption — 120 grams per day, or a little over 4 ounces — was associated with higher pancreatic cancer risk in men, but not women. (A serving of meat is about 2-3 ounces, or about the size of a deck of cards.)

What really raised eyebrows, however, was the effect that processed meat had on the development of pancreatic cancer. An increase in processed meat consumption was associated with a significantly higher risk in both men and women.

In fact, just 50 grams a day of processed meat (about 1.8 ounces or the equivalent of one sausage link) raised the pancreatic cancer risk by 19 percent, while eating 100 grams a day (3.5 ounces) upped the risk to 38 percent.

“Processed meats” are those that have been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding chemical preservatives like sodium nitrite. If you think about all the meats that fall into this category, it can get pretty frightening. Breakfast favorites like bacon and sausage are processed meats, as are lunchtime staples like ham, roast beef, salami, bologna, pepperoni and literally all other deli meats, as well as hot dogs and even beef jerky.

Sodium nitrite is such a concerning ingredient because it is a precursor to nitrosamines. These carcinogenic compounds are generally recognized to be hazardous to the health of humans because they can accelerate the formation of cancer cells in the body.

Hold the Hot Dogs, Bye-Bye, Bacon

Processed meats (and all processed foods, really) have no place in a healthy diet. They provide little to no nutritional value, they contain questionable ingredients and chemicals, and now, the research has proven that they can be dangerous to your health. Along with pancreatic cancer, processed meats have been linked to colorectal and prostate cancer, and even leukemia.

For optimal health and reduced cancer risk, focus on eating a Mediterranean-type diet that’s rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, beans, olive oil, poultry, and wild-caught, cold-water fish like salmon. Obviously, hot dogs and bacon do not fall on this list.

As for other meats, if you simply can’t resist a burger or steak once in a while, then opt for beef from free-range, organically fed cattle. Indulging occasionally in red meat will likely not do much harm, particularly if you know the cattle were fed nutritiously and were not given unnecessary antibiotics. When it comes down to it, choosing fresh meat will always be healthier than choosing processed meat.

[1] Larsson SC et al. Red and processed meat consumption and risk of pancreatic cancer: meta-analysis of prospective studies. Br J Cancer. 2012 Jan 31;106(3):603–7.

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