Red Meat, Processed Meats, Nitrates and Cancer
It’s grilling season! Among the favorites to grill are heavily processed, red meats such as hotdogs, smoked ham and bacon wrapped burgers. Red and processed meats have routinely been criticized for causing cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Since there are many aspects of red meats and processed meats that may be to blame for these conditions, let’s put our focus on, nitrates and nitrites.
Nitrates and nitrites are the preservatives often found in cured meats; they’re added to enhance color, provide flavor and prevent deadly bacterial growth (clostridium botulinum)!
Once consumed, nitrates take various forms in the body. First, nitrates are reduced to nitrites, by the bacteria in our mouth. Nitrites may convert to nitric oxide (via the acid in our stomachs), then are absorbed by our small intestine and finally excreted by our kidneys via urine. Some research shows that nitrates that convert to nitric oxide may benefit cardiovascular health. For those of you “gym-goers”, nitric oxide may sound familiar because it’s used as a pre-workout supplement. That’s because it acts on our blood vessels as a vasodilator, which relaxes the blood vessels and makes them more efficient at pumping more blood (and therefore more oxygen) per beat. This has been shown to improve athletic performance, among other benefits. On the other hand, nitrites can take a different path and may form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are the combination of nitrites and amines (the breakdown product of amino acids – the building blocks of protein). Nitrosamines were shown in some research to cause tumors in lab animals.
Well that’s confusing! On one hand nitrates may cause cancer, but on the other they may benefit cardiovascular health. Furthermore, did you know that more nitrates are found naturally in foods such as turnips, rhubarb, beets and celery, than those chemically added to processed meats (like potassium nitrate)? That’s because nitrates and nitrites are part of the earth’s nitrogen cycle; therefore anything that grows in the ground will contain some level of nitrates. Like so many other divisive nutrition topics, it’s important to consider the context.
Although some research shows nitrites can form cancer causing nitrosamines, this pathway is less likely when antioxidants (in the form of vegetables) are consumed. Since meats do not contain these antioxidants, there is a potential correlation with the meat preservatives, nitrates and nitrites, and an increased risk of stomach and colon cancer.
If it’s the nitrates that are the issue let’s just omit them, right? That’s what some companies are doing, I’m sure you’ve seen the new food claims that state “No nitrates/nitrites added except for those naturally occurring…”? The statement is regulated by the USDA (United States Dept. of Agriculture), but does it really mean anything, and is it better?
For example; a “naturally” cured turkey bacon ingredient list may look like this: [Turkey, Water, Vinegar, Sea Salt, Raw Sugar, Celery Powder]. Although this bacon is indeed preserved without the use of nitrates or nitrites, it is not nitrate- or nitrite-free since there are naturally occurring nitrates in celery. This packaging may lead the consumer to believe it is superior to conventional (chemically preserved) meat. However, the body sees natural nitrates and chemically derived nitrates the same. Unfortunately, labeling meats as uncured is misleading.
To add to the confusion, “processed” meat is multifaceted; cured and processed meat is often red meat of lesser quality and likely fattier cuts; often containing preservatives, sugar, breading and more sodium than likely achieved via home preparation. Additionally, the nutrition of a plant or animal is also dependent on how it is raised, prepared, seasoned and ultimately cooked.
So what is a nutrition conscious person to do? Choose a variety of proteins instead which include seafood, poultry, red meat and vegetable proteins. Limit your use of all processed meats including those that are smoked and cured and consider sodium content; choose products that contain less than 250 or 300 milligrams per serving. While you’re at it, vary your preparation methods as well; roast, slow cook, sauté and grill your meats - just because it’s tasty!
Raising an Adventurous Eater
Food surrounds us 24/7. Therefore food decisions are constant, it’s estimated that we make over 200 food and drink choices per day, many of these subconsciously. That means that much of our choices are habitual and many likely rooted in our childhood, and as we know habits die hard. For those parents out there who want to raise a healthy, adventurous eater, read on as I explain four of the most important steps in cultivating a healthy relationship of food within your child(ren).
The first way to expand a child’s food repertoire is involving them in the process and allowing them to experiment. Begin with grocery shopping, ask for their choice between carrots or celery as a snack. If you enjoy gardening, involve them in planting, caring for and harvesting the food you’ve grown together. Then include them in meal prep; being sure to involve them in a variety of age appropriate meal preparations is a great way to make them more open minded about food. Give them tasks such as having them assist with seasoning a chicken stir fry, sautéing mushrooms for the spaghetti and baking cookies. Trust me, when they’re proud of their participation their more likely to eat the food (no nagging required)! These are places to teach them science (“why does that bread rise”?), math (using measuring scoops) and biology (where food really comes from). Children should not be in the way when it comes to food, they should be involved, it’s our role as parents to provide that involvement.
Just as meal preparation is important, meal time offers many benefits as well. Studies have shown that family meals lower the chance of high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, decreases the risk of obesity and simply offers a chance to connect as a family and build self-esteem in our children. For children of a younger age group, benefits of meal times include a growing vocabulary, table manners and socialization skills. Family meals should be about nourishing our bodies to the point of satisfaction, having fruitful discussion and moving on with life. Try to avoid placing the focus on what, and how much your child eats, children are very intuitive eaters (and that’s a good thing)!
Have you ever seen a child make that squished-face-of-dissatisfaction? As parents we interpret this face as a distaste for the food their trying, but in fact this is simply a child’s way of exploring a new food. It can take up to 20 times or more of food exposure to like a food. One study showed that even exposure of new foods through pictures books led to an increased consumption of these foods, after just two weeks. To introduce new foods, try preparing familiar foods in unfamiliar ways; such as fruit sushi. Conversely, offer unfamiliar foods, in familiar formats; such as veggie smoothies or curry pasta. Provide your child with a variety of foods, tantalizing all five senses (taste, sight, touch, smell and sound). This means exposing them to hot, cold, wet, dry, sticky, stringy, crunchy and creamy options, you get the picture. Ultimately, exposure leads to familiarity, which results in acceptance.
Finally, and quite possibly the most important is to lead by example. Children have an innate desire to be and do just like their parents, food is no exception. You cannot expect your child to eat carrots while you’re eating cookies. That means the whole family eats the same meal. Depending on your child’s age, their plate may look a bit different, but most foods are present on each plate. Always have one familiar food you know they’ll enjoy and build from there. Remember too, that if one parent doesn’t like a food, have them at least participate in the meal and avoid vocalizing their dislike. This gives your child a chance to come to their own conclusions about the foods they enjoy. Being an example means you may have to get out of your own comfort zone.
I’ve always said “they don’t know they don’t like it until they don’t like it” … give your children a chance to make their own decisions. Succumbing to your child’s food jag, (the phase most youngsters will experience when they desire only a couple foods over and over) will only prolong this phase and may eventually lead to manipulation and selective eating. You must trust your child to trust themselves, I promise “they’ll eat when they’re hungry”.
To learn more about childhood eating, some great resources include the Ellyn Satter Institute, Jill Castle, and myself, Jessica Gutsue, the dietitian at Restorative Health Care.
Heart Health Month
February is the time to start thinking about your heart! Just small changes to your everyday eating habits can help make your heart healthier and happiers.
Is “Keto” Right for You?
“Keto”. It’s sort of a thing as of late. If you haven’t been living under a rock in the past 18 or so months, you’ve at least heard the term, if not fully adopted the diet yourself. Popularized by several credentialed and maybe not-so credentialed folks; the ketogenic diet was first studied and proven effective in 1921 as a therapy for children with seizure disorders.
Although there are variations of the ketogenic diet, generally it provides 70-90% fat, 10-15% protein and about 5% carbohydrate. Severely restricting carbohydrates, while consuming LOTS of healthy fat encourages the body to produce ketones and use them as fuel. Which results in a state called nutritional ketosis, an ability we’re all born with. To provide some context, the standard American diet is roughly 55% carbohydrates, 30% fat and 15% protein. This is a radical shift in macronutrient distribution. With that said, our bodies are amazing machines and can utilize both ketones (from fats), or glucose (primarily from carbohydrates and excess calories) as fuel. Thus the ability to survive on either plan.
The ketogenic diet is all the rage right now, and with good reason, let’s talk about some of these. Though it’s initial research and use was to control epilepsy; more research is proving beneficial for several other conditions. This list includes dementia, migraines, depression and obesity, among others.
Since one in three adults are overweight or obese, weight loss is the main driver of the diets’ recent rise in popularity. The diet works in a few different ways, but regarding weight loss it’s largely due to the lack of insulin produced by the pancreas, and the body’s ability to burn fat as fuel. Since insulin remains low, the diet mimics a fasting state, burning fat, while providing most of one’s essential nutrients.
Let me explain how insulin is so key in the weight loss equation...
Foods That Might Help Lower Blood Pressure
Foods That Might Help Lower Blood Pressure
The topic of high blood pressure seems to be surrounding me a lot lately from dealing with my dad’s uncontrolled blood pressure, who has already experienced a stroke, a discussion with a patient this week wondering if there are foods to help lower blood pressure and preventing my own blood pressure troubles as my age is increasing (as I watch my age number increase so does the blood pressure number!). Uncontrolled high blood pressure can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke. It is important to get control of it sooner than later. We know a healthy lifestyle, such as eating healthy foods; regular exercise and stress management all play a role in preventing and controlling high blood pressure.
A lower sodium diet is helpful, especially limiting to avoiding processed foods and restaurant foods and if you do choose a processed food use 140mg of sodium per serving or less as a guide for low sodium choices. Foods rich in calcium, potassium, magnesium, soy protein and omega-3 fatty acid could also improve blood pressure numbers. Here are some recommended foods rich in the nutrients mentioned:
Calcium: Almonds, greens, milk, calcium-fortified plant milk, fat-free yogurt,
Potassium: Swiss chard, yellowfin tuna, acorn squash, sweet potatoes, edamame, cooked spinach, bananas, fat-free yogurt, OJ, dried apricots, baked potatoes with skin, beans, cantaloupes, low-sodium V8 juice
Magnesium: Brown rice, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, flaxseeds, Brazil nuts, cashews, dark chocolate, spinach, Swiss chard, lentils, whole grain bread
Soy protein: Edamame, soy milk, tofu, unsalted soy nuts, calcium-fortifed tofu
Omega-3s: Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, mackerel), walnuts, soybeans, flaxseeds, chia seeds
Eating healthy and regular exercise is key, but so is controlling stress. Find time to meditate, just 10 minutes daily and quiet the mind, practice yoga, listen to soothing music etc.