Is it the end of the American diet? The bad and the good about food, cancer, and longevity
This past week has been full of controversy about the dangers of bacon and processed meats. Some are calling it “bacon-gate.” The World Health Organization (WHO) and its linked research group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), classified bacon and hot dogs as “human carcinogens (Group 1).” That designation means they are causing cancer in the same way that tobacco and asbestos are classified as cancer-causing agents!
This caused quite a backlash around the globe. IARC had to release a clarification that “Category 1” describes the strength of the scientific evidence—rather than assessing the level of risk. To put this in perspective, smoking increases the relative risk of lung cancer by 2,500%, whereas eating two slices of bacon a day increases the relative risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.
So yes, cancer-causing factors are involved (and they can definitely cause cancer), but the relative risk, comparatively speaking, is low versus other chemical exposures. The chemicals involved are of two broad types. The first is heme. Red meat of all types includes heme (the heme of hemoglobin—blood). Heme breaks down into the cancer-causing N-nitroso compounds. IARC classifies the “heme” as a probable carcinogen.
The second component consists of the nitrates and nitrites used to cure meats, which also turn into nitroso cancer-causing agents. It is the processed or cured products which are classified as the “Group 1 carcinogens.” Then, on top of that, you have the acrylamides that come with grilling. Use of olive oil in grilling reduces the acrylamide formation.
Bottom line: There is definitely a concern that points more to reduced or more limited consumption than to complete abstinence. Moderation in all things, as my mother always said! We will be hearing a lot more about this in the coming months, I am sure. For example, smoked versus cured or grilled food may be fine or better. Let’s see what the data show.
So, what about the good news?
As opposed to bacon, I recently learned about Bama, a village located in Guangxi, China, which is called the “home of longevity.” While there is one man in Bolivia documented to be 123 years old, the village of Bama boasts many residents over the age of 100 years—five times the international average. It is another “Blue Zone,” which I have discussed here in the past.
The villagers’ healthy diet is proposed as the major factor in their longevity. I can tell you that bacon is not a major component of the diet, but why do the residents live to a ripe old age, and typically without cancer or other diseases found in Western societies?
Several theories are proposed, ranging from the sunlight index (infrared/ultraviolet intensities “just right”); air (high concentration of negative-oxygen ions); water (naturally filtered from rivers and caves); magnetic field (very unusual and good, apparently); as well as the food, which is locally grown with lots of beneficial lactobacillus bacteria.
The local diet includes hemp seeds, pumpkin, bamboo shoots, yellow corn, beans, potatoes, and whole grains, which provide organic and pollution-free food. It is a Mediterranean-style diet, low in red meats for sure, but including river fish and poultry.
Bottom line: Again, there is no simple answer! Bama is a beautiful, tranquil location in rural China—not a lot of stress. Yes, the diet is probably very good, but other factors are involved.
Bacon is not entirely bad, and we are not sure why Bama is such a healthy place. Limiting bacon and trying to emulate Bama can only be good.
Dr. Brian G.M. Durie serves as Chairman of the International Myeloma Foundation and serves on its Scientific Advisory Board. Additionally, he is Chairman of the IMF's International Myeloma Working Group, a consortium of nearly 200 myeloma experts from around the world. Dr. Durie also leads the IMF’s Black Swan Research Initiative®.