When any health news about what’s “killing us this week” breaks out, it causes a frenzy among the general public. This week, headlines are saying that The World Health Organization states that consuming processed, and possibly red meats increases the risk of colon and other cancers. I have to admit that even for a second as those words were uttered through my TV I had a moment of panic as visions of cheesy char-broiled burgers and grilled hot dogs generously topped with sauerkraut, danced in my head. These are delicious foods I would now never be able to fully enjoy, without worrying that I’m eating my way into the grave. After I had a minute to collect myself, I wondered, is it really as bad as the headlines say it is?
The new facts emerging state that processed meats such as hot dogs, deli meats, bacon, and red meats, are now classified as a Group 1 category, carcinogen. The different groups refer to the cancer risk the substance poses. New York Times lists other items in that classification, which include: cigarettes, alcohol, and asbestos. The story goes on to ease our minds by explaining that “they do not all share the same level of hazard.” Binge drinking and chain smoking every weekend is much more likely to kill you in the long run, than eating the occasional bacon cheeseburger. The report, by Anahad O’Connor, further elaborated that the processing is what makes these foods potentially harmful. Smoking, curing, charring, and other methods of preserving the meats can release toxic byproducts that affect our internal systems.
In the same report in NY Times Dr. John Ioannidis, the chairman of disease prevention at Stanford University says “a person’s risk of colorectal cancer rises by a factor of about 1.1 or 1.2 for every serving of processed meat consumed per day.” The key words being per day, which most of us aren’t even doing. Most headlines aren’t going into the important details, leaving us worried that we ate a hot dog two weeks ago and a deli sandwich last week, which is unwarranted. In another statement Ioannidis explained that the increases are so slight that we don’t need to abstain from our favorite foods for the rest of our lives. Catherine Saint Louis, another reporter at the NY Times, stresses the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. Eating a healthy and colorful diet of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in conjunction with exercise is an easy way of reducing our cancer risk – allowing us to splurge on the bacon at Sunday brunch. It’s all about balance.
We knew these foods were never healthy per se, but still, seeing cancer in bold yellow letters running along the bottom of your TV screen next to the “breaking news,” is unsettling. The takeaway from this is that moderation is key. Part of living a happy, healthy life is the occasional indulgence. Food is meant to be enjoyed, but with this new discovery we need to be a bit more mindful of what we put in our bodies. If processed meats are a daily habit, then it may be a time to make some changes, but as long as we are good most of the time, our systems can handle the occasional cheat day.