Questioning the Meat-Cancer Link

The link between food and health is often painted in broad sweeps and generalizations. Fats are bad, salt is bad, lean protein is good. You know what I mean. While over-simplifications like these may reflect a level of truth, they span too wide a spectrum and encompass more than they should. If we hope to discuss the link between food and health in a meaningful way, and to create meals that nourish us without being unnecessarily limiting, generalizations must give way to distinctions.

Consider the question of meat and whether or not its consumption is linked to a variety of cancers. The National Cancer Institute says that it is. So do the National Institute of Health, Harvard University, the World Health Organization, and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

To these and others, I say, we should all say, tell us what you mean by meat. For as long as there have been people, there have been meat eaters, and these meat eaters didn’t always get cancer. So, we need qualitative distinctions that will help us make sense of this link:

  • How were the animals raised? Are we talking about meat from cows that spent their lives on concrete under artificial lighting, eating genetically-altered corn and soy, and receiving antibiotics and hormones before they were trucked long distance for slaughter? Or do we mean meat from cows that lived on grass in the sunshine, without medication or grain supplements, who were then slaughtered on the farm or nearby? These animals and the meat they provide are not the same.
  • What varieties of meat are we referring to and was the meat processed? Do we mean animal organs, muscle meat, or stock made from bones? Are we discussing processed meats like cold cuts and sausage, or unprocessed meats without additives or preservatives?
  • How was the meat cooked? Was the meat charred on a grill, or baked or broiled at high temperatures? Or was it boiled or roasted at low temperatures?
  • How much meat was consumed? Do we mean large portions of meat served as an entree or small portions served as an accompaniment? Meat eaten daily, weekly, or only now and then? Which of these is linked to cancer?

With so many unanswered questions, and with an obvious need for solid information, it can be a challenge to resolve this issue for ourselves. Whenever I’m unsure of what to eat or what preparation methods to use, I look to the past–to a time when people did not succumb to the diseases we’re trying to avoid. In this case, the past provides a key piece of information: the incidence of cancer among traditional people, hunter-gatherers and those living in non-industrial cultures, was exceedingly rare. These people ate both cooked and raw meat and, because our genes still bear traces of our hunter-gatherer heritage, they were also our genetic brethren.

©Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.com

©Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.com

Inuits

Let’s start with the Inuits, who have been widely studied. As I learned from Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D., Vilhjalmur Stefansson was a 19th century anthropologist and arctic explorer who undertook a search for cancer among the Inuit in Canada in Alaska. These are people who, at the time, consumed a diet of 80% fat, nearly all from raw and cooked fish and meat. They were physically active for part of the year, and relatively inactive in the coldest months. They also tended to be lean. Stefansson found no trace of cancer among them. American and European physicians were inspired by these results and conducted their own search from 1850-1920, studying 25,000-50,000 Inuits a year. They also found no trace of cancer. Incidentally, they also found no heart disease, obesity, tooth decay or diabetes. You may be wondering if the Inuit had physiological differences that allowed them to eat this way. Stefansson wondered this as well and so in the early 1900s, under the supervision of the American Medical Association, he and his fellow researchers subsisted for several years on the Inuit diet, remaining healthy and strong with no sign of disease.

Other Traditional Cultures

Hundreds of other hunter-gatherer cultures have been studied, and while all obtained a portion of their calories from meat–many up to half their calories or more–cancer was rare if it existed at all. In Cancer: Nature, Cause and Cure, Dr. Alexander Berglas tells of Sir Robert McCarrison’s study of the Asian Hunzas. McCarrison found the 11,000 people he examined to be entirely cancer-free. In contrast to the Inuits, they ate a plant-based diet, but supplemented it with grass-fed dairy and a small amount of meat, including organ meat.  He tells also of Dr. Eugene Payne, who, over 25 years, studied 60,000 natives in Brazil and Equador and found no evidence of cancer. And there is Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who in 1913 set up a hospital in Gabon, West Africa and examined more than 10,000 natives; he was surprised to find no evidence of cancer. In Cancer as an Environmental Disease, Polyxeni Nicolopoulou-Stamati recounts the examples above, and also tells of Dr. Frederick Hoffman, who found no incidence of cancer among the indigenous Bolivians he studied. Similar observations were made of native people in Senegal and Algiers.

My Own Conclusion

There are many additional studies and examples I could cite, but more important to this discussion is the fact that we all possess common sense and can pose questions and seek answers ourselves; a healthy skepticism is always appropriate. My own research turned up this bit of information. According to US census results from a decade ago, the most recent I could find, Argentinians consume the most beef in the world. I looked at beef because red meat is the variety most often implicated in cancer studies. But the highest rates of colorectal cancer, the type most often linked to red meat consumption, are reported to be in Canada; Northern, Western, and Eastern Europe; Israel; Australia; and New Zealand. If meat alone is the issue, shouldn’t the highest rate of meat-related cancer be in Argentina?

We must be wary of generalizations when they conflict with common sense, with regard to this question and all questions. No matter what the experts tell us, our current understanding of food and its link to health is rudimentary; there is much we still don’t know. So it helps to look to the past when we have questions, and to respect and value the wisdom imbued within the food ways and lifestyles of people who did not contract the diseases we’re trying to avoid.

It is likely that there is a link between the consumption of certain kinds of meat and cancer: meat that is charred or cooked at a high temperature, for example, or processed meats like cold cuts and sausages. It might be the chemicals in the meat, or it could be the processing methods or the way the animals are raised. It is also possible that there are other factors at work when modern meat-eaters get cancer. Regardless, the studies of traditional people–and our common sense–tell us that it is possible, as a culture at large and as individuals, to eat meat and remain cancer free.

Related recipe: Rich Chicken Broth

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul