Red Meat Risk

CONSULT October 2018

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For lower colon, rectal cancer risk, UMMC experts suggest fish switch

Published on Monday, October 1, 2018

By: Ruth Cummins

Which is the better choice: a greasy but delicious cheeseburger or baked honey garlic salmon?

It’s a no-brainer for the usual reasons, but one of them might not be common knowledge: Passing up meat in favor of fish dishes could drop a person’s colon cancer risk by 43 percent, studies show.

When it comes to colon and rectal cancer, exercise and weight can make a difference in a person’s risk. But diet also comes into play, especially the consumption of red meat.

A study of 77,000 adults in the United States published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine found those who ate no red meat, but who did eat fish and seafood, had a 43 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer. That compares to adults who ate one serving of red meat every week.

Portrait of Dr. Josie Bidwell

“Fish can be very healthy,” said Dr. Josie Bidwell, associate professor of preventive medicine at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “What’s driving cancer risk is the link between processed foods and obesity.

“Just being obese increases the risk of a lot of cancers.”

The study also included vegetarians who ate fish and seafood but no red meat, concluding that eating vegetarian can lower colon cancer risk by 19 percent and rectal cancer by 29 percent. The vegetarians in the study also ate fewer sweets and snacks, drank fewer high-calorie drinks and consumed more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

The study also indicated vegans who avoid all meat, eggs and dairy lower their colorectal cancer risk by 16 percent.

Should a person avoid red meat, eggs and dairy – not just the obvious “no-nos” like sweets and sugary soft drinks?

Bidwell said to focus on a healthy meal plate of fruits, vegetables and lean protein.

“A lot of benefit actually comes from a reduction in meat and animal products,” she said. “The majority of saturated fats in our diet come from meat. Any time we can cut back on that is good, and fish can be a great resource for that.”

But she advises fish must be prepared in a healthy way.

“If we batter it and fry it, then we’ve lost the benefit of it being a low-fat, high-quality protein. Baking it, broiling it or poaching it can keep the calories and fat low, but still give you a nice lean protein.”

Bidwell recommends one or two servings of fish a week. And to those who aren’t inclined to add it to their diets, she said to just give it a try.

“Most fish shouldn’t have that strong, fishy taste that turns a lot of people off,” she said. “Try different varieties. There are some fish I like, and some, like salmon and tuna, that I don’t care for.”

A Mississippi natural is catfish.

“It’s abundant here, and we are a leading producer,” Bidwell said. “It’s an excellent way to get in a serving of fish.

“I’ll use catfish in gumbo or in a skillet with a little olive oil, garlic and lemon pepper, and serve it with brown rice and asparagus. You’ve got a great meal.”

She said fish isn’t a “magic bullet” that will protect someone from getting cancer. But she said decreasing calories and fat can help lower the risk, just like eating more fish and less red meat.

“People don’t necessarily understand the links between diet and cancer risk,” Bidwell said. “There’s a strong connection to that. So any time we can lower fat and calories and get more fiber, it’s going to improve our overall gut health, and that will decrease risk of cancer.”

Bidwell suggests the following recipe to substitute for a red meat meal: 

Catfish and Shrimp Gumbo

 2 T. canola oil

2 T. all-purpose flour

1/2 c. diced onion

1/2 c. diced green bell pepper

1/4 c. diced celery

2 cloves minced garlic

1 1/2 t. Tony Chachere Lite Creole Seasoning

Small pinch red pepper flakes (optional)

4 c. low sodium vegetable stock

1 bay leaf

A few sprigs of fresh thyme

1 pound catfish, cubed

1 pound peeled and deveined shrimp

Salt and pepper to taste


Heat oil over medium-high heat and add flour. Stir constantly for 5-10 minutes until dark tan in color. Add chopped vegetables and cook for another 3-5 minutes until they start to soften. Add creole seasoning, red pepper flakes, thyme and bay leaf. Whisk in the stock. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cover and cook for 20-30 minutes. Add in catfish and shrimp and cook another 10-15 minutes until cooked through. Remove bay leaf and thyme stems. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. Serve over brown rice with a tossed green salad