RED MEAT AND CANCER
The summary of a report published in the Lancet states that the consumption of processed and red meats increases your odds of getting cancer. Unless you have been avoiding the news, blogs, television and internet for the last two weeks, then you’ve heard about this article and you’ve seen the backlash this hot topic has created. To avoid getting lost in the crowd of rebuttals, I let this wounded piece of news, so to speak, bleed out before I added my two cents. So let’s cut this open and dig in.
Quick cliff notes and review of the study are here:
The report of discussion suggests that eating red meat 2x a week or more can increase cancer risk by up to 20%, and the WHO (World Health Organization) landed on this report after reviewing over 800 scientific studies from around the world.
The study suggests that processed meat carries the most evidence to this risk. Processed meat would be would be identified as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, deli cuts, etc. Anything that’s, you know, processed.
In the case of red meat, the classification (2B) is based on limited evidence from epidemiological studies showing positive associations between eating red meat and developing colorectal cancer as well as strong mechanistic evidence. *Limited evidence means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.
Processed meat was classified as Group 1, carcinogenic to humans. This category is used when there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. In other words, there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer. The evaluation is usually based on epidemiological studies showing the development of cancer in exposed humans. *In the case of processed meat, this classification is based on sufficient evidence from epidemiological studies that eating processed meat causes colorectal cancer.
Quick Math Fact to know about the WHO report: The report states that the average risk of getting colorectal cancer is about 61 out of every 1,000 people (about a 6.1% chance). If you eat bacon everyday, then you increase your risk by 18-20%, based on the report. This brings your risk up to a 7.2% chance of getting colorectal cancer. The bottom line is that processed meat can, and potentially will increase your risk of cancer. By about 1% overall.
So if we can push aside all of the arguments and emotions about whether or not to eat meat, let’s look at the fact that the WHO’s report is, in fact, right. They’re right! Now, should we be concerned? YES. And I’ll explain why because on the surface 1% doesn’t seem like a lot, and truth be told I’m not worried about bacon killing me. What I am worried about is why and how processed meat can increase cancer risk.
The very thing we’re all avoiding is why processed meat got put into Group 1 (substantial evidence), and why red meat got put into Group 2B (not really a lot of evidence. basically, a guess). This is because a negative transformation happens to meat during the process of salting, curing, fermenting or other processing treatment that causes the build up of carcinogenic (cancer-causing) chemicals such as N-nitroso-compounds (NOC) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) in the food. So, I hope we can all agree that hot dogs, and bratwurst, and sausages, bacon (turkey or pork), and the deli meat on Subway sandwiches is not all that great for us. Stop arguing and reading the titles of headlines and just assuming that the WHO suggests meat causes cancer. They didn’t deliver any inaccurate information here. This is all information we know and are aware of. Meat is awesome, it’s good for us and we should all eat it! But if you really pick the report apart, and put aside headlines for a moment, you’d see that we all agree.
We agree to eat meat, and that it won’t kill us and that bacon doesn’t cause cancer. But it can increase the odds and that’s actually scary (and something to be concerned about, objectively) because guess what, everything around you right now is increasing your risk of some kind of cancer. Your fireplace, the furniture polish on the dining room table, the computer screen you’re staring at, the flouride in your toothpaste, and chemicals at the salon where you just got your haircut, the perfume or cologne you splashed on this morning, the synthetic fibers and chemicals used to make the clothing on your back right now. Y’all…. everything. Everything in our messed up, modern, yet amazing world we live in is increasing our odds for cancer. Did you know that in the year 1900 our chance of dying of was around 1 out of every 50 people? Today, 115 years later, that chance is 1 out of 2. Got that? One out of every two people will die of cancer. What happened in the last century to change that statistic so drastically?
The WHO is right. But it’s not the food itself, it’s how we farm it, raise it, grow it, pack it, ship it, and process it. If you are choosing healthy products that practice humane and organic ethics, then don’t even bat your eyes at headlines like “Bacon Will Kill You!”, and don’t even respond or argue or doubt. Do you consume the healthiest version of bacon or sausage? Great. But if you are buying Jimmy Dean craptastic sausage patties and microwavable turkey bacon and grabbing Subway sandwiches for lunch, then you should pay closer attention to the WHO report and read it carefully and reconsider making some changes to your lifestyle.
“If you don’t want to have problems, eat real food. Stop eating all this cheap crap. I’ve had multi-millionaires and world-class professional athletes in my office tell me that organic food is too expensive. I walk them to the window and point to their $140,000 sports car and say, “Eat that f***er then! Because when you die they aren’t going to bury that son of a bitch with you!