Easting meat causes cancer.
That’s the fearful message that all news outlets are spreading this morning. Never before have I been more afraid of getting into a conversation with a vegetarian and be slobbered with ‘I told you so’s. This time, they are more smug on the backing of the WHO.
The headlines read ‘Processed meats do cause cancer’ – BBC; ‘Meat probably carcinogenic’ – CNN; ‘Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes’ – Guardian.
Everyone should make up their own minds on your lifestyle and diet. So I’m just going to express my personal view, not preach.
Am I going to change my diet? No.
I purchase fresh cuts of meat from the butcher, and only bought bacon and salami twice in the last 6 months. My meals have proportionately more leafy greens, beans and grains. If anything, I should really consume more fish (and truffle brie, always room for more truffled soft cheeses).
Am I going to change my eating habits? No.
I have more meat in my meals on the weekends after my weekly shop. Then portion accordingly across the working, making up with vegetables and fruit. I probably order bacon for Sunday brunch once a month on average. I loved the occasional sausage stew in winter, and two large pork and fennel sausages with soft steaming chunks of potato each sitting kept me satisfied.
What I’m getting at is that it’s all about your own personal lifestyle choices to make a responsible decision of how much meat you put on the end of your fork. Certainly don’t just pig out on 6 sausages every day, or attempt to get your daily meat intake from McDonald’s. One, that’s fast food, and a whole other arguement. Two, meat… well that’s debatable but that describes ‘processed meat’ perfectly.
But the WHO says so, so it must be true!
Well hang on, the headlines haven’t included any numbers. So let’s read the actual content of the report before jumping to conclusions. Let’s first define what processed meat is. It’s modifying meat to alter it’s taste, texture or shelf life. So generally any meat which goes through smoking, salting, fermentation, or the addition of chemical preservatives. Of those, I think I’d take my chances with salted and smoked over chemical additives. Also, we’ve long known that smoking is strongly associated with carcinogens from the wood fires. So why don’t we throw in smoked trout (yum!) and other fishes into this same discussion? What about smoked chicken breast (white meat)? Heck, char-grilled vegetables, we should stop eating those too!
As indicated clearly in the press release by the International Agency for Research on Cancer Research (IARC), red meat is a probable carcinogen based on limited evidence. In other words, there are signs, but it is by no means conclusive. Proceed with caution for now. Let’s continue to compile the evidence from large cohort studies before we drive the meat stock industry to the ground. Processed meat has been classified as a carcinogen associated with colorectal cancer and linked to pancreatic and prostate cancers. Being the informed audience that you all are, I hope that despite that you will take measured decision in managing your own consumption keeping in mind that we are surrounded and exposed to multiple carcinogens in our daily lives.
Finally, back to numbers, what is the relative risk burden imposed by eating processed meat? Estimates indicate that each year, smoking kills 1,000,000 people and alcohol kills 600,000. In comparison, 34,000 lives are lost due to cancer associated with consumption of processed meats. So the mortality cost is 30x less than smoking and 17x less than alcohol-related cancer deaths. These figures are by no means absolute because it is very difficult and close to impossible to control for other diet, environmental, work and lifestyle factors which could skew the risk for developing cancer.
At the end of the day, this WHO declaration should not drive you to stop eating processed meat, or red meat. Eliminating red meat does not prevent cancer. It just makes sense to have a balanced diet, high in green leafy vegetables and fruit, with moderate amounts of red and white meats. Exercise is vital to maintaining a healthy disposition, and key to preventing obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Moderate consumption of alcohol if desired, and absolutely no smoking.