July 1, 2019

Is Meat Destroying Your Colon? The Link between Meat and Colorectal Cancer

link between meat and colorectal cancerYears ago, cigarettes were put on notice as we decided to eschew the nostalgia of the Marlboro Man and the James Dean cool of a smoke. We accepted the direct link of cigarettes to both vascular disease and lung cancer, and the need to avoid inhaling a strong carcinogen. As a result, lung cancer deaths are trending remarkably down. “I hope now is the time for us to address another fabric of our culture: hamburgers and hot dogs are as American as the fireworks on the Fourth of July,” said Colin Bird, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Mission Surgery. How is this “culture” that Dr. Bird mentions impacting our health?

“Meat and potatoes” have become a generic way to categorize the U.S. diet, but now is the time to accept that this fabric of our life is also part of our undoing,” Dr. Bird said.

Many studies on the connection between red/processed meat and the colon have accumulated evidence that suggests an increased risk of colorectal cancer by as much as 20-30 percent. While the discussion of this link focuses of things like N-nitroso compounds, heterocyclic amines and the heme molecule, the simple truth is that the red meat and processed meat are not a healthy part of our diet.

This study doesn’t tell us anything new about how what we eat directly impacts our health and bodies. “While meat is a good source of protein, it’s high in saturated fat – particularly processed meat, including hot dogs, bacon, ham and pepperoni,” said Brian Asbill, MD, a cardiologist at Asheville Cardiologist Associates. Processed meat, which has been cured or adulterated in some way to give it longer shelf life, is considered a level one carcinogen, meaning it can lead to cancer over time if consumed often.

Dr. Asbill says the worst type of meat to consume on a daily basis is red meat, and the best to consume is fish like mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon. Essentially, cutting out animal products and removing meat as the focal point of your eating habits will help reverse clogging of the arteries. Always check the label and look at the ingredients of what you’re putting in your body.

Like cigarettes slowly came out of the spotlight when we understood more about their impact on our health, we hope that gaining a better understanding of how certain meat impacts our colorectal health helps individuals make better food choices.

“You don’t have to give up red meat to be healthy, but evidence is convincing enough that it would be wise to limit your consumption,” said Dr. Bird. He says to think of vegetables and grains as the main dish, and meat as the side dish. “Or, you can choose to forego meat all together, substituting with chicken, fish or plant-based proteins. In the end, your colon will thank you.”

Colin Bird, MD, is a fellowship-trained and a board certified general and colorectal surgeon at Mission Surgery.

Brian Asbill, MD, is cardiologist and board-certified lipidologist at Asheville Cardiology Associates, an affiliate of Mission Health. He is also the first individual in the world to achieve a certification in Lifestyle Medicine.