You and I both know the decision to add the bacon (turkey bacon for me) in your burger was not the greatest health decision. The double cheeseburger you decided to order also left you feeling a little guilty. First Monday of the month? 2 free slices of pizza at Planet Fitness, baby. Do these life decisions mean you need to start your end of life bucket list? Recent headlines shouting ‘RED MEAT’, ‘PROCESSED FOOD’, and ‘CANCER’ will have you thinking, yes. How about we cut the crap and share the facts instead. Using the slogan for my blog as a transition was no where near as cool as I thought that was going to be.
Sounds scary: The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has recently classified processed meat as a ‘definite’ cause of cancer (or Group 1 carcinogen). Cigarettes and alcohol are also classified as a Group 1 carcinogen.
What it really means: These categories are a determinant of how confident the IARC is something causes cancer. Based off of the research these scientists reviewed, they have sufficient evidence to determine consumption of processed foods increases the risk of colorectal cancer.
Sounds scary: So, since processed meats and cigarettes are in the same classification, are they equally dangerous?
What it really means: No. Having confidence in something is not the same as risk. The best analogy and explanation of this comes by Dr. Phillips, “Think of banana skins. They definitely can cause accidents, but in practice this doesn’t happen very often. And the sort of harm you can come to from slipping on a banana skin isn’t generally as severe as, say, being in a car accident.”
Sounds scary: People who eat 1 serving of red or processed meat per day have a 17% increased risk of colon cancer, compared to those who eat 1 serving per week, according to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF).
What it really means: Statistics can be scary. A 17% increase sounds like a lot…until you put it into perspective. Lets say we’re directly comparing the risk of cancer from eating red/processed meat once a week verses every day. This direct comparison is called relative risk, but when when looking at the absolute risk we get a better understanding of what this statement means in real life.
About 61/1000 people will develop colon cancer. If all those people underwent a low red meat consumption lifestyle, according to the WCRF, that number would decrease by 17% (so, 17% of 61 is about 10). Therefore, with the low red meat diet, 51/1000 people will develop cancer, 10 less people. Doesn’t sound as significant as the ‘sounds scary’ comment does it?
Sounds scary: If I don’t go vegan, I’m going to die.
What it really means: No. As usual, the truth is found somewhere in between the extremes. There’s nothing wrong with being a vegan. As a vegan, there are still ample ways to intake all of the nutrition you need. In addition, completely eliminating red meat and processed meat in your diet almost surely will reduce your chances of developing colon cancer, but to what extent? Is it worth the major life decision to never ever enjoy a burger ever again? If yes, then awesome, go vegan! For those that enjoy the occasional burger, don’t worry you’re safe. The more reasonable, scientific, and logical message to take from all this buzz is everyone’s favorite 10 letter word, “moderation”. The occasional bacon, burger, and hot dog is probably not going to give you cancer. Downing a pork roll, bacon cheese burger with a large soda, and large fries most days of the week, is definitely going to increase your chance of an early death or disease.
Other stuff you should know:
- All this stuff you’re reading on the news, isn’t new. Processed meat was never deemed to be healthy. The recent news is a review of a collection of already published literature. So yeah, this isn’t some great scientific breakthrough.
- The topic of the dangers of red meat is still more controversial than you think. The Journal of the American College of Nutrition looked at a collection of 27 studies and found the association between read meat and cancer is weak.
- Chicken and fish are chilling in the corner like, what about us? Chicken and fish, not cooked in gallons of oil, can be quite healthy. Areas of the world where the staple in diet is seafood, see a much less rate of instance of heart disease (read about that in my omega-3-fatty acid post). So try to incorporate more lean meats and seafood into your diet, and less double cheeseburgers. No one is arguing this.
- Although often adjusted for, in population studies, we don’t always know the disparity of characteristics in the people being looked at. Meaning, are the people getting cancer people who are also overweight, inactive, genetically predisposed, etc. Like I said, most of the time it is adjusted for, but not all the time. So great advice you’ve never heard before, but try to incorporate a healthy lifestyle of activity and exercise no matter what you eat.
- To the extreme vegans and extreme meat eaters, let me be the moderator here. Again, there’s nothing wrong with being vegan. On paper, in my opinion, it’s probably a nutritionally healthier lifestyle, as long as you still get in your major vitamins and macronutrients most commonly found in meat (i.e. protein, iron, vitamin B12, etc.). With that said, in regards to nutrition and health (not getting into the ethics of it here), there’s nothing wrong with consuming meat either. Yes, excess red med is not good. Processed food should be minimal. But to accuse every meat eater of ignorantly welcoming cancer, makes you sound like an ass. A stupid one too.
- Last but not least, a personal quirk of mine. For the extreme vegan lifestyle supporters (which is totally cool with me) that are also hardcore anti-vaccinators (not cool with humanity), you are NOT ALLOWED to endorse or repost any article supporting these recent findings about red meat and processed food by the WHO. Why? Because no one endorses the benefit and worldwide usage of vaccines more than the WHO. You can’t sit there and be like “oh the research on red meat is definitely accurate and flawless but the vaccine information is all conspiracies. I mean, you could do that, but that’s stupid too. Let’s stop stupid together.
 Dunlop, Casey. “Processed Meat and Cancer â What You Need to Know.”Cancer Research UK Science Blog Processed Meat and Cancer What You Need to Know Comments. Cancer Research UK, 26 Oct. 2015. Web. 31 Oct. 2015.