Bacon Under Attack?
Steph’s note: I was on vacation in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island when the WHO report on red meat and processed meat hit back on October 26, 2015. Immediately across my social media, there was a call for me to write a formal post summarizing my thoughts and give advice to my readers. (Not an easy task as you can imagine.) My friend, Dr. Jolene Brighten, ND posted a very smart summary on Instagram as I was traipsing across NZ, and I asked if she’d share it here with you.
By now you’ve probably heard all of us red meat eaters and bacon lovers are at higher risk for certain types of cancer.
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) classified bacon as bad as cigarettes(1), I’ve received a lot of messages from people wondering if they should skip the bacon.(2) So, here we go…
Just to review, bacon and other processed meats have been given Group 1 Classification, along with tobacco and alcohol, which are all said to “cause cancer.” Red meat has been given Group 2 Classification, which includes things that “probably cause cancer,” like shift work or other jobs that cause a disruption in circadian rhythm.(3) This classification system comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). When the IARC assigns something to a particular group, it represents how confident they are, based on an aggregation of evidence over time, that said “thing” causes cancer.
The most important thing to keep in mind while we review this data is that these Group Classifications represent how confident the IARC is that these things cause cancer, not how much cancer they cause or the potency with which they cause cancer. So, the evidence that both tobacco and processed meat is just as strong, but the actual risk from tobacco is much, much higher.
1. We do not have a randomized control trial, and probably never will, to really understand the impact eating red meat has on health. We have observational studies that can make correlations at best, but cannot assert causation. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of power in observation when it isn’t being diluted by reductionistic thinking.
2. People observed tend not only to eat more red meat, but also tend to smoke, eat fewer vegetables, drink more alcohol, and exercise less … All behaviors that are associated with chronic disease and higher cancer risk.
3. The red meat/processed meat theory is too reductionistic. As stated in point #2, there are many other variables at play and to vilify meat is just absurd. A lot of people have now come to think that avoiding red meat means they’ll avoid cancer. Unfortunately (and I say this because I sincerely care for you and your health), eating or not eating red meat alone is likely to have little impact. I know we all want that one easy answer, but I’ll venture to guess that if you found yourself on my page you know there is no one single easy answer. Which I must confess is my favorite part of medicine.
4. Don’t forget that your microbiome matters. We need more research here to gain a better understanding of its role in cancer, but we know, for instance, the short chain fatty acids that are produced by healthy gut flora is protective against colon cancer. Feed your microbiome, heal your gut and those bacteria will help keep their home healthy.
5. Eating preserved/cured anything in copious amounts isn’t a good idea. We know this. So if you’re living off bacon then it’s probably time to make a shift. But this doesn’t mean bacon is bad for everyone.
So what now? Stop eating meat all together? Pass up the bacon at the meat counter?
Well, I won’t be changing my recommendations based on the WHO’s stance because what they’ve stated doesn’t really change anything about the foundations of a healthy lifestyle:
1. Move your body for at least 30 minutes a day. Read: Exercise. But I like to emphasize movement rather than exercise because it isn’t just about going to a gym, but rather, moving your body in any way that brings you joy.
2. Eat vegetables. Lots and lots of vegetables. Every day, every meal. Eat veggies that are loaded with phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber – all things that prevent cancer.
3. Avoid refined grains and sugars as a staple in the diet. Instead of eating that burger with a bun (gluten-free or otherwise) try a bed of greens with a side of broccoli.
4. Play often. Do something enjoyable every day. Play keeps your immune system healthy.
5. Work with a Naturopathic or Functional Medicine doctor to help you understand your individual needs and help you thrive.
6. Eat organic whole foods as often as possible. All the time would be ideal, but then reality sets in and we all need to come to terms with the fact that we are navigating a complex (and dare I say, sneaky) food system. We have to make conscious efforts and strive to do the best we can with what we consume. Now that doesn’t mean eating a donut while simultaneously uttering, “I’m doing the best I can.” We can’t just shrug our shoulders and say, “it’s too hard.” You are entirely capable of choosing and consuming the best foods…and you deserve that.
(Also, for the record, I do think donuts are delicious and do partake in a gluten-free donut should the mood strike me. I just want to make sure no one thinks I’m perfect. I am not perfect. You are not perfect. And there’s no reason either of us should try to be.)
Why am I setting out to make this point? Because studies like these and the health industry in general leads many of us to try harder to attain perfection in whatever is being targeted that week in the media. In all honesty, perfectionism and dogma lead people to a state of stress and chronic illness. And it is just no fun.
I think that these statements, like the one from the WHO, start out with the best intentions, but quickly become manipulated in a way that is unfavorable to you.
The key to learning and growing is creating a dialogue and getting the whole story. I’d love to hear from you* about this topic or whatever’s on your mind!
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About Dr. Brighten
Dr. Jolene Brighten is a licensed Naturopathic Doctor, mother, and entrepreneur located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr. Brighten specializes in women’s health, from fertility to postpartum care, adrenal and thyroid support, autoimmune conditions, and digestive disorders. In her family-oriented practice, Dr. Brighten thrives on navigating the space between conventional and alternative medicine, all while working with patients to help them achieve optimum balance, health, and happiness. She appeared on Episode 003 of Harder to Kill Radio.
*Steph’s note: Intelligent discourse on this issue is welcome, but comments that don’t match the comment policy will not be approved.