“Meat causes cancer!”
The great meat debate has been an ongoing source of conflict between varying groups for the past 20 years—especially since the release of the famous “China Study” book, published in 2005, often cited as the leading authority on the reasons to not eat meat. In it, the authors explain the 1980’s “China Project” research study in layman’s terms, concluding that that people should eat a predominantly plant-based diet—excluding animal products (including beef, pork, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, and milk), processed foods and refined carbs— to avoid, reduce, and reverse the development of numerous diseases.
Since then, there have been many more studies out there linking meat consumption (especially red meat) to cancer. However, does this link actually mean that meat causes cancer, or is there something else that sets the stage for meat to cause cancer?
3 Things to Consider About Cancer
The latter appears to be more accurate. Here are 3 things to consider (that most news headlines won’t tell you):
Fact 1: Cancer Upregulates the Immune System (and anti-Inflammatory foods are best)
Cancer is characterized by an unregulated immune system. Cancer often develops because the immune system failed to do its job in attacking defective cells, allowing the cells to divide and grow
What causes this immune response in the first place?
Inflammation, and “stress.” Inflammation and stress are interchangeable terms in the autoimmune disease presentation. Anything that causes inflammation is a “stress” to your body—setting you up for the perfect storm of autoimmune disease (i.e. body attacking itself). Stress goes far beyond mental stress. It includes things like:
- Pesticides on fruits & veggies
- Gut irritating foods (high intake of grains, sugar, processed, hydrogenated oils or refined foods)
- Conventional meats (containing hormones & antibiotics)
- Lack of a balanced diet (i.e. high meat consumption without enough greens, prebiotics, healthy fats or fermented foods)
- Low water intake (for flushing the body)
- Gut dysfunction (low stomach acid, low digestive enzymes, bacterial overgrowth)
- Toxins in our environment (products, home, mold, metals exposure, air quality)
Given these facts, high meat consumption can certainly be a source of inflammation for some people (particularly depending on the type of meat consumed—organic vs. conventional; a lack of veggies in the diet; or underlying gut conditions, that help meat digest in the first place).
However, as noted above, meat is NOT the only source of inflammation in the body connected to stress and disease. Essentially, any time we lack balance in our diets and lives (such as lacking nutrient-dense foods) stress and inflammation happens. Other specific examples of dietary stressors that trigger inflammation for some people may include:
High amounts of raw and cruciferous vegetables
FODMAPS are difficult for some people to digest and break down—especially those with SIBO, IBS or gut issues.
Whole Grains, Nuts & Beans
Unfortunately, most of the grains sold in the U.S. today are highly processed, pseudo-versions of grains, filled with enriched flours, fillers, sugar and oils; or not properly soaked or sprouted, containing heavy amounts of phytates and lectins that our digestive tract cannot break down. Nuts and beans also contain these compounds and can cause gut irritation.
Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners
Sugar feeds cancer cells. Artificial sugar is not much better, correlated with tumors and various forms of cancer in multiple studies cited by the National Cancer Institute.
High Fat or Protein Diets Without Enough Fiber
For those with a sluggish, under-functioning, liver-gallbladder, fats and proteins can be more difficult to digest—particularly in the face of low greens and fiber intake. (No, fat is not bad for you, but if you, once again, lack balance then inflammation risk is higher)
The Bottom Line: Cancer is an immune condition that is triggered when your body encounters various inflammation and stressors. Certain dietary triggers (like poor quality meat consumption, or lack of veggies with your proteins) may be more “inflammatory” to some people, whereas other stressors, (such as lack of sleep and smoking) are more present and inflammatory for others.
Fact 2: “Leaky Gut”& Dysbiosis are the Roots of Cancer…Not Meat
Hippocrates said it best: “All disease begins in the gut.” “Leaky Gut” and an unhealthy gut microbiome are another common link that all autoimmune diseases share—including cancer.
Unfortunately, for a long time, debates over “what causes cancer” have been heavily weighted at particular foods and lifestyle stressors, such as meat, smoking and lack of fruits and veggies. However, valid or not, the root cause is often missed in all these studies, claims and debates—leaky gut.
Your gut is the gateway to your health. If your digestive tract and gut microbiome are unhealthy, then you are less likely to digest and absorb your nutrients properly to feed the rest of your organs and cells.
Additionally, in the case of “leaky gut,” food particles and foreign proteins from the foods you eat seep into your bloodstream, undigested, where your body’s immune defense system then attacks itself to get those proteins out of there (i.e. “autoimmune response” or “autoimmune disease”). If this happens continually, over time, this autoimmune attack wreaks havoc on your health, resulting in various autoimmune disease presentations or symptoms. In functional medicine we say, “Genetics load the gun, but environmental factors (diet, gut health and lifestyle) pull the trigger.”
Similarly on this topic, for a long time, it has been presumed that red meat causes heart disease due to its high cholesterol and saturated fat content. However, research now shows this is not the case, as unhealthy gut bacteria have been implicated as a more likely culprit in the red meat-CVD correlation: intestinal microbes have been shown to metabolize carnitine, a trimethylamine abundant in red meat, into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), a well-characterized pro-atherogenic species that is associated with heart disease.
The Bottom Line:
You may have the genetics for cancer or other health conditions, but only when other environmental factors are “stressed” (like your gut health) is when that cancer presents itself. We still have a lot to learn about the influence of the microbiome on health and disease, but we know enough already to conclude that the gut-disease link is significant.
Fact 3: Meat Studies Don’t Necessarily Use “Healthy” Controls
Given the fact that more than 1 in 2 Americans already have a chronic disease in our country, are studies with “average” controls of the population really all that healthy? While syndromes and diseases like IBS, acne, allergies, anxiety, constipation, pre-diabetes and more may be considered “healthy,” “normal,” or “average” in our society, these issues typically signify something else (health related) is going on under the hood—especially gut health and hormone related. Additionally, most studies rarely ever mention what else the control subjects ate in their diet. Diets rich in gut-irritating foods can equally wreak havoc on one’s health, including foods like:
- Whole grains (i.e. cereals, quinoa bowls, oats)
- Difficult-to-digest nuts or beans
- Nutrient-deficient veggie intake (fact: only 1 in 10 Americans eats the recommended number of veggies)
- “Healthy” fat free ice cream, processed bars, or shakes (laced with synthetic ingredients like: guar gum, erythritol, vegetable glycerin, pea protein and other inflammatory fillers)
The Bottom Line:
When interpreting a study that claims “meat causes cancer,” or “carbs cause weight gain,” or even “broccoli causes cancer,” ALWAYS question: Who were the test subjects? What was their current lifestyle, diet and gut health like? There’s often more to the story than meets the eye.
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