Will Your BBQ Increase Prostate Cancer Risk?

Eating meat has been associated with health concerns for years. In particular, grilling or charring meat has been associated with increased cancer risk. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dietary factors are responsible for 30% of cancers in Western countries and 20% in the developing world. A Harvard study evaluating risks of developing certain kinds of cancers isolated the population that ate meat and found that vegetarians are 40% less likely to develop cancer.2

People eat meat because it tastes good, and provides a source of protein, vitamins, and minerals, like iron and B12.Yet meat is not necessarily good for you. It has no fiber and limited nutrients. Most meat has saturated fat and depending on cooking methods, may develop carcinogenic (cancer-causing) compounds.

Prostate cancer

The prostate is a male gland that is located between the bladder and the rectum. Prostate cancer is a leading cause of male cancers, affecting about 1 in 7 men in the US.2 It is a disease that generally develops in men over age 65 and is rare under age 40. Most prostate cancers are slow growing adenocarcinomas. Although it is a serious disease, it is treatable and not generally a cause of death.

You are what you eat

Dietary factors have both causative and preventative elements in the risk for developing prostate cancer. High fat food consumption may lead to the increase of testosterone production, which could increase prostate cancer risk. Whereas, there are other foods you can eat that may be protective. These include foods containing carotenoids (protective plant pigments) such as carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, and kale as well as those rich in antioxidants (substances that delay cell damage) such as blueberries, pecans, and dark chocolate.

A study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that a change in diet can have a positive effect on the prevention of prostate cancer.1 Low fat, high fiber meals full of grains, fruits, and vegetables cannot only be preventive but also a helpful component of treating prostate cancer.

Cooking techniques

Certain cooking techniques like broiling and frying that use high temperatures were found to increase carcinogenic compounds (see examples below). Those compounds can modify DNA in a way that may increase cancer risk. DNA damage only happens after the body has metabolized the compounds. This process is called bioactivation. Not all people are affected in the same way. Cancer risk from exposure to these compounds due to cooking methods can differ from person to person. Interestingly, the cooking techniques apply to more than just red meat; they have similar impact when preparing fish or poultry as well.

  • Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) form when amino acids (basic components of proteins), sugar, and creatine (a substance made the body uses to store energy) react to high temperatures.3
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) form when meat cooked over an open flame drips onto the fire causing flames. The PAH chemicals in the flames then stick to the surface of the meat. PAH can also form during the processing and smoking of meat, other charred foods and some environmental exposure, including cigarette smoke and exhaust fans.3

Studies looking at cancer risks of eating meat classified red meat as beef, pork, or lamb. They also look at other foods prepared by frying, grilling, broiling, and those cooked to well done at high temperatures. Most retrospective food studies on HCAs and PAHs have been conducted by questionnaire. Information collected suggests it is hard to determine exactly how much of the compounds exist in any one portion of food and how much is consumed. Associations have been made but definitive links need further validation.

Animal models revealed increased development of cancer when mice were fed foods that contain HCA and PAH. There is no direct correlation between animal and human dosages consumed. Animals were fed dramatically higher amounts than what would be consumed by human beings.

There are no Federal guidelines on the consumption of HCA and PAHs. Further studies are needed to investigate the association between eating meat, how it is cooked, and any relation to increased cancer risk.

Risks for other cancers

Researchers found that eating well done, fried or barbequed foods were also associated with increased risks for developing colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer. Eating large amounts of animal protein, particularly red meat, is associated with an increased risk of colon cancer. Similarly, a higher intake of fatty foods, including meat, dairy products, fried foods, and oils have shown an increase in hormone production, which likely increases the risk of hormone-related cancers like breast and prostate cancer.

Eating healthy

Eating a healthy, low-fat diet rich in plant foods, grains, and beans can potentially reduce the risk of developing certain kinds of cancer. Fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals and other nutrients can have a potentially protective effect. Fiber helps food pass through the colon to remove carcinogenic materials.1

Eating healthy and exercising more are more than just phrases; they are tools for healthy living, and in some cases, beneficial in treating or preventing cancer.

Some grilling tips:

While there isn’t enough evidence that HCAs and PAHs increase risk for cancer, there are simple precautions that you can take before you light up your next BBQ. Here are three basic grilling tips:

  1. Shorten Grilling Time, Precook or Cut It Up: If you are grilling larger cuts, you can reduce the time your meat is exposed to the flames by partially cooking it in a microwave, oven or stove first. Immediately place the partially cooked meat on the preheated grill to keep your meat safe from bacteria and other food pathogens. You can also cut your meat into smaller portions before grilling.
  2. Trim the Fat: Trimming the fat off your meat can reduce flare-ups and charring. Cook your meat in the center of the grill moving coals to the outside, and make sure to flip frequently.
  3. Grill fruits and veggies: Grilled vegetables and fruits produce no HCAs, and diets high in plant foods are associated with lower cancer risk.
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