Yes Or No: Does Red Meat Cause Colon Cancer?

A man leaning over a grill full of steak and smiling

 

(BlackDoctor.org) — Does eating red meat increase the risk of dying from heart disease or cancer? It’s a question that keeps coming up, fueled by research and high-profile campaigns by advocacy groups on both sides of the debate. Following are some answers about disease risk, health benefits, and what role red meat should play in the diet.

1. Does eating red meat increase the risk of cancer and heart disease?

For heart disease, the answer is pretty clear. Some red meats are high in saturated fat, which raises blood cholesterol. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the risk of heart disease. When it comes to cancer, the answer is not so clear. Many researchers say they do raise the risk, especially for colorectal cancer.

A recent study of more than a half-million older Americans concluded that people who ate the most red meat and processed meat over a 10-year-period were likely to die sooner than those who ate smaller amounts. Those who ate about 4 ounces of red meat a day were more likely to die of cancer or heart disease than those who ate the least, about a half-ounce a day. The meat industry contends there is no link between red meat, processed meats, and cancer, and says that lean red meat fits into a heart-healthy diet.

But many studies have found similar links. Another one that followed more than 72,000 women for 18 years found that those who ate a Western-style diet high in red and processed meats, desserts, refined grains, and French fries had an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and death from other causes. The connection between consumption of red and processed meats and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer, is very consistent.

2. If eating red meat does increase the risk of cancer, what’s the cause?

That’s not clear, but there are several areas that researchers are studying, including:

•    Saturated fat, which has been linked to cancers of the colon and breast as well as to heart disease.
•    Carcinogens formed when meat is cooked.
•    Heme iron, the type of iron found in meat, may produce compounds that can damage cells, leading to cancer.

3. Are there nutritional benefits from eating red meat?

Red meat is high in iron, something many teenage girls and women in their childbearing years are lacking. The heme iron in red meat is easily absorbed by the body. Red meat also supplies vitamin B12, which helps make DNA and keeps nerve and red blood cells healthy, and zinc, which keeps the immune system working properly. Red meat also provides protein, which helps build bones and muscles.

4. Is pork a red meat or a white meat?

It’s a red meat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amount of myoglobin, a protein in meat that holds oxygen in the muscle, determines the color of meat. Pork is considered a red meat because it contains more myoglobin than chicken or fish.

5. How much red meat should I eat?

Opinions differ here, too. Most nutritionists suggest focusing on sensible portion sizes and lean red meat cuts, for those who choose to eat it.

Ask yourself these questions:
•    Are you taking in more calories than you’re burning off?
•    Is red meat crowding out foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains?

Government guidelines suggest 5 to 6 1/2 ounces daily of protein from a variety of sources, including lean meats, nuts, and seafood. So if you’re planning on eating a burger for dinner, it should be a 3-ounce hamburger patty, about the size of a standard fast food burger.

Try to eat  no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat a week. You should avoid all processed meats, such as sausage, deli meats, ham, bacon, hot dogs, and sausages, as research shows an increased risk of colon cancer from consumption.

6. What are some of the leanest cuts of red meat?

 

For the best red meat cuts, look for those with “loin” in the name: Sirloin tip steak, top sirloin, pork tenderloin, lamb loin chops.

•  Beef: Also look for round steaks and roasts, such as eye round and bottom round; chuck shoulder steaks; filet mignon; flank steak; and arm roasts. Choose ground beef labeled at least 95% lean. Frozen burger patties may contain as much as 50% fat; check the nutrition facts box. Some grilling favorites are high in fat: hot dogs, rib eyes, flat iron steaks, and some parts of the brisket (the flat half is considered lean).

• Pork: Lean cuts include loin roasts, loin chops, and bone-in rib chops.

7. What are the criteria for a lean cut of red meat?
Meats can be labeled as lean if a 3-ounce serving contains less than 10 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams or less of saturated fat, and less than 95 milligrams of cholesterol.

If you’re buying beef, check the U.S. Department of Agriculture grading, too. Beef labeled “prime” is the top grade but is also highest in fat, with marbling, tiny bits of fat within the muscle, adding flavor and tenderness. Most supermarkets sell beef that is graded as “choice” or “select.” For the leanest red meat, look for a select grade.

8. Is grass-fed beef a leaner red meat choice than grain-fed?

Grass-fed beef is leaner than grain-fed, which makes it lower in total fat and saturated fat. Grass-fed beef also contains more omega-3 fatty acids. But the total amount of omega-3s in both types of beef is relatively small. Fish, vegetable oil, nuts, and seeds are better sources of omega-3s.

9. Can grilling red meat cause cancer?

High-temperature cooking of any muscle meat, including red meat, poultry, and fish, can generate compounds in food that may increase cancer risk. They’re called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

10. How can you reduce potential cancer-causing compounds when grilling?

Several steps help prevent these compounds from forming or reduce your exposure to them.

•    Choose lean red meat cuts when grilling to reduce the chance of flare-ups or heavy smoke, which can leave carcinogens on the meat.

•    If grilling, cook over medium heat or indirect heat, rather than over high heat, which can cause flare-ups and overcook or char meat. Limit frying and broiling, which also subject meat to high temperatures.

•    Don’t overcook meat. Well-done meat contains more of the cancer-causing compounds. But make sure that meat is cooked to a safe internal temperature to kill bacteria that can cause food-borne illnesses. For steaks, cook to 145 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit; for burgers, cook to 160 degrees.

•    Marinate. Marinades may reduce the formation of HCAs. Choose one without sugar, which can cause flare-ups and char the meat’s surface.

•    Turn meat frequently. Use tongs or a spatula rather than a fork to avoid releasing juices that can drip and cause flare-ups. Do not press burgers with a spatula to release juices.

•    Don’t grill as much meat. Instead of a steak, try a kabob that mixes meat, fruit and vegetables. Plant-based foods have not been linked to HCAs.

•    Trim fat from meat before cooking, and remove any charred pieces before eating.

•    Consider partially cooking meats and fish in the oven or microwave before finishing on the grill.

 

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Fewer Blacks Getting Colon Cancer Screenings Because Of Money

A stethoscope sitting on a pile of money(BlackDoctor.org) — Fewer people opted for potentially lifesaving colonoscopies to screen for colon cancer during the recent economic recession, largely because they couldn’t afford to pay high out-of-pocket costs often associated with this test, new research finds.

The problem? African American men have less than a 5-year survival rate for colon cancer, and should therefore be screened for the disease at 40 (10 years earlier than their White counterparts).

About 500,000 fewer Blacks who had health insurance underwent a screening colonoscopy, compared to the two years before the recession began. The study findings appear in the March issue of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology.

“In difficult economic times, people are more likely to forgo necessary medical services if there are high out-of-pocket costs,” said study author Dr. Spencer Dorn, an assistant professor of medicine in the division of gastroenterology and hepatology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And “colonoscopy is never the most popular service to begin with.”

During a colonoscopy, a doctor looks for abnormalities in the interior lining of your large intestine — the rectum and colon — with a camera after a day-long bowel cleanse or prep. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends colorectal screening for people aged 50 and 75, but because of the higher rates of death due to colonrectal cancer, experts recommend that Blacks, particularly Black men, get screened beginning at age 40.

Before the recession, the number of colonoscopies performed each year increased steadily, largely because of general awareness of the test’s benefits and broader coverage by insurance companies, Dorn said.

The new study included data from 106 U.S. health plans on colonoscopy rates before and during the recession among people aged 50 to 64. Those people with out-of-pocket costs of at least $300 were less likely to have a colonoscopy during the recession compared to those with lower out-of-pocket costs, the study showed. Out-of-pocket costs in the study referred to co-insurance payments.

A similar trend — higher co-pays and fewer cancer screenings — seems to have occurred with mammograms, according to study background information.

A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed colonoscopy can prevent colorectal cancer and dramatically reduce deaths from the disease. “Let’s hope the economy gets better and we can try to get rid of cost sharing for colonoscopy,” Dorn said.

As part of health reform, federal changes are under way that do away with co-pays for people covered by Medicare, Medicaid or new insurers for any test that the USPSTF deems as grade A. This includes colonoscopy.

Such cost-cutting measures are needed if Americans are to comply with recommended screening guidelines, the study authors and other experts say.

Among them is Dr. Robynne Chutkan, an assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. “Screening colonoscopy saves lives and is an important part of the preventive health care measures that we recommend for people age 50 and older,” said Chutkan.

“One can only hope that at least some of the decrease in colonoscopies during the time period described represented people who were in financial straits at the time, but have now recovered and are able to refocus on their health,” Chutkan said.

“We know that cost-sharing is a disincentive psychologically, even if the co-pay amount is small and ‘affordable.’ In principle, it is still a barrier for many people,” Chutkan said.