In a recently concluded 12-year study, scientists found that people who eat meat regularly, especially meat that is well done or cooked at high temperatures, may have a higher chance of developing bladder cancer.
Surprised? I didn’t think so. The study, undertaken by scientists at the University of Texas, joins previous research linking meat with bowel, pancreatic and colon cancer. So while I’m glad these studies are making headlines and getting coverage, it’s worth pointing out that this “news” is not exactly new.
Many people I know, who profess to be concerned with their health and the health of the planet, are so jaded by the constant discovery of new carcinogens that they shrug them off, saying, “yeah well, these days what doesn’t cause cancer?”
I understand how overwhelming it can be to feel surrounded by toxins in our environment. We take comfort in food, and we want to imagine that our dinner, at least, won’t kill us. However, if we look around at the rising rates of morbid obesity, heart disease and cancer, we can see that our dinner, if it includes meat, is killing us. We can hide behind the fatalistic argument that we’re all going to die anyway, or we can make the basic changes to our diet that will alleviate the risk of cancer, and improve our quality of life.
The distinctions are not that difficult to make. Study after study confirms that meat is not good for our health. To date, I have yet to find a study saying sweet potatoes are not good for our health. Ditto on taro, papayas, bananas, pineapple, kale, collard greens, bell peppers, tomatoes or cucumbers - and that’s just what’s growing in my garden right now. Switching to a plant-based diet is the single most important thing a person can do for their health. You don’t have to be fatalistic or jaded about the risk of cancer. Just plant a seed.
The most recent study found that people who consumed the most red meat were 48% more likely to develop bladder cancer than those who consumed the least. The report further studied the effects of high temperatures on meat. They found that “medium” meat was linked to a 46% increased risk of cancer while “well done” meat was lined to a 94% increase in risk, compared to meat that was “rare.”
I found it odd that the study only compared people who ate lots of meat to people who ate less meat. What about people who ate no meat? It might be useful, for example, to know that a heavy smoker cuts eight years off his life expectancy compared to a light smoker, but wouldn’t it be more useful to know the life expectancy of someone who never smoked at all?
This particular study didn’t include any data from vegetarians, but there are plenty of other examples from previous studies. One 11 year long study from Germany found that people who eat no meat are less than half as likely as the mainstream population to develop any kind of cancer.
In the University of Texas study, the scientists looked at the way meat was cooked, and concluded that chemical reactions between amino acids (the building blocks of protein and creatine (a chemical found in muscles) react under high temperatures to form heterocyclic amines (HCA’s), which are carcinogenic. The authorities stopped short of recommending a vegetarian diet, however, issuing the following statement instead:
“The UK Food Standards Agency says people can reduce their risk from chemicals that may cause cancer by…cooking at lower temperatures for a longer time, but warns that undercooked meat can cause food poisoning.”
So, cooked meat gives you cancer and uncooked meat gives you food poisoning?
Pass the sweet potatoes, please.