Does red meat cause cancer? Here’s what parents should do

I was raised on beef and potatoes. My kids have seen quite a bit of bacon and ham in their lifetimes, and steak is always requested on birthdays. In fact, my crew would pipe in and tell you bacon is one of their favorite foods. And my husband has a soft spot for good sausage. 

So how am I processing the latest news about processed meats and red meat being linked to the development of cancer?

I’m doing it with a balanced perspective, of course.

We all know that eating too much of anything can be detrimental to our health. Too much sugar, too much fat, and now, too much processed meat.

Anytime a person has a heavy focus on eating any one type of food, problems can arise, even in kids.

I had a teen in my private practice who only ate raw fruits and veggies. She became very sick — underweight, iron-deficient, and depressed. I also had a toddler who was failing to thrive because her parents were overly focused on whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Likewise, I’ve seen kids who eat a lot of dairy products that become uncomfortably constipated. And, I’ve seen kids who eat too much fat from animal and processed foods, whose lipid profiles have looked like that of an old man with high cholesterol and heart disease.

While cutting back on processed meats and limiting red meat consumption have always been considered healthy steps, this latest research serves as a reminder to strike a balance with food at every meal and snack, every single day.

There are ways that you can balance your food, like always offering a fruit and/or a vegetable at meals or working in whole grains as often as possible.

Try to broaden your thinking about protein to include plant sources. Offer alternative protein foods, such as beans, quinoa, and nut butters.

Pay attention to portions of meat. For little kids, 1-2 ounces equals a serving.

Target a weekly or monthly limit of meat for your family. This is done best with a meal plan, so you can look at the whole week and see where meats are offered.

Limit processed meats like deli meat, hot dogs, salami, and such in your family’s diet. I think it’s smart to let kids have these foods occasionally (a hot dog at a baseball game or pepperoni on a pizza, for example), so they know how to eat and enjoy them in a healthy diet. This approach is similar to allowing desserts or candy in the diet so that kids learn how to include them without focusing too heavily on them or going overboard when they eat them.

When your family eats processed meat, be sure to serve up those healthy plant foods alongside (fruit, veggies, and whole grains).

If you have made the decision to cut processed meats and red meat out of your child’s diet, make sure to include substitute food sources of iron and zinc. You can check with a registered dietitian who can examine the adequacy of iron and zinc in your child’s diet.

Most of all, try to keep the BIG picture in mind. One food doesn’t determine the risk of cancer. There’s a host of influencers, including genetic predisposition, activity level, stress, body weight, environment, and more.

The key, as always, is feeding your children a balanced diet that represents all food groups, most of the time. That means fruit, vegetables, and whole grains (plant foods) show up on the plate just as often as dairy products and protein foods like meat.

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About Jill Castle, Bundoo Pediatric Nutritionist

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and childhood nutrition expert. She is co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.

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