Two Sundays ago, I had the best breakfast sandwich of my life at Saint James Eatery in Hamilton. It had a greasy fried egg, a crispy hashbrown, a flattened real sausage and expertly drizzled chipotle mayo between two perfectly toasted English muffins. It was love at first bite—and I reveled in the post-binge euphoria, wondering why more restaurateurs haven’t mastered the sausage-on-breakfast-sandwich thing.
Then, any feelings of delight I had over my meaty culinary escapes (above and beyond the dirty, delectable sandwich) were drowned with fear when the International Agency for Research on Cancer, of the World Health Organization, advised us to limit the consumption of things like burgers, steaks and bacon because processed and red meats are carcinogens. In other words, they can cause cancer. The experts went over decades of research from around the world, and reviewed about 800 studies to draw this conclusion.
Many media outlets took this news and ran with it, likening meat consumption to the perils of smoking and exposure to asbestos—both things are far from the truth. An article in the New York Times urges us to understand the scope of the studies; sure, there is a link between red/processed meats and cancer, it says, but it could be what’s called the “healthy-user bias,” which means people who eat bacon are more likely to engage in risky behaviours, like smoking or excessive drinking, than those who are vegetarian, for instance, who could exercise more often. While the word “carcinogen” itself means a substance that produces cancer, in this case, just because you eat meat doesn’t mean you will get cancer.
“Restricting or limiting the amount of processed meats that you’re consuming is something we’ve been recommending for a while,” says Kate Comeau, dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. You don’t have to give up meat completely; just take a look at your consumption patterns. “Even when we’re talking about processed meats, we’re talking about 50 grams a day, every day, over a long period of time. So if you are consuming bacon on a Saturday morning, once a week or once a month, we’re definitely not as concerned.” The same goes for red meat, she says, where the studies looked at 100 grams daily (about the size of a deck of cards) over time.
But instead of worrying about all of the things that could cause cancer, let’s be proactive here and focus on what we can do to protect ourselves as best as possible, shall we? “Make sure you’re consuming fatty fish one or two times a week, and eat plant-based proteins like beans and lentils often,” says Comeau. “So if you deduce from there, then having red meat in rotation with other types of protein, whether it’s chicken or turkey, naturally you’re going to have a variety.” If you’re big into steaks and BLTs, etc., Comeau advises you try sharing them with your BFF or try a smaller portion at a restaurant. “I’m less concerned when people go out to restaurants occasionally than when people go through a drive-thru and eat two breakfast sandwiches without paying attention.” Oh, and quit smoking, exercise, eat more veggies—all those things.
So while the news will surely riddle my bacon consumption with a smidgen of guilt, I refuse to let it ruin the foods I’ve enjoyed for so long. This is, in a way, the next stage of being healthy for me—as a 30-something, I can’t throw caution to the wind and eat junk food with abandon anymore. I’m just going to think a bit more before I eat meat. But there’s no way in hell I’m sharing that breakfast sandwich with anyone.
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