This issue doesn’t seem to be going away at all. A few weeks ago the World Health Organization tried to pull a Kim Kardashian and break the internet with its report on the connection between red meat and cancer.
They released a report linking red meat and processed meat with cancer and media outlets, websites, blogs and new stations jumped all over this info calling out red meat for essentially being the devil.
As it tends to happen with reports like this, a lot of the information was shared incorrectly and conclusions were jumped to. Here’s what you need to know about the insights into the red meat/cancer issue.
Weaker Observational Studies Were Used
If you follow science and research you know that these types of studies are some of the least effective in finding real results. In this case, it was the International Agency for Research on Cancer that was taking information from 800 different studies and trying to connect some dots. And the way they gathered their information regarding the red meat issue? Was it through clinical studies, hospital reports and medical examinations? Nope, it was done by food questionnaires.
The goal of the IARC was to identify the possible agents that can cause cancer and have so far come up with a list of 900. Out of those 900 agents, only 1 has not been linked to cancer. They broke down these agents into different categories using vague terms like “may” cause cancer or “possibly” could cause cancer.
Also on this huge list of possibly causing cancer? Coffee and wine.
These studies are not looking at a direct causation between a certain item like a hot dog and cancer but just that these agents contain one or more compounds that COULD cause cancer. This is an important distinction as correlation and causation are two entirely different things.
Ice Cream & Murder
An example of how correlation or association can give you some skewed results is the findings that increased sales in ice cream lead to a higher murder rate. I’m not saying some Rocky Road will turn you into Charles Manson but when you look at when ice cream sales rise it tends to be when it gets warmer in the summer months. When the heat goes up it also creates irritability and aggression in people that can lead to more violent crimes including murder. So when you look at many variables that are all grouped together the connection can be made between higher ice cream sales and murder rates.
Here’s another one; Margarine sales lead to divorce.
Red Meat, Cigarettes and Asbestos
Since processed meats like bologna, hot dogs and beef jerky contain one or more compounds that could lead to cancer they get placed into the same category as noted cancer causers like cigarettes and asbestos. Again, not a fair connection. They can fall under the same umbrella but have vastly different percentages in danger.
A good example used to illustrate this is bananas and cars. A banana is harmless, but the discarded skin has the possibility to make you slip and hurt yourself. There is no chance of this happening as high as there to be in a car crash, but they can both cause accidents so need to be put in the same accident causing category. And obviously the results of a car crash are much more severe. So look at the processed meat as the banana peel and things like cigarettes and asbestos as the car crash.
Cigarettes increase your relative risk of lung cancer by 2500% and the stat thrown around about processed meat and colorectal cancer says eating 2 slices of bacon a day can increase your relative risk for it by 18%. But when you look at the lower frequency of colorectal cancer the risk of actually getting it drops to 5-6%.
Alfred Neuget, who is an oncologist and cancer epidemiologist from Columbia says, “If this is the level of risk you’re running your life on, then you really don’t have much to worry about.”
Ignoring Other Lifestyle Factors
To me, this is where it gets ridiculous. These reports pluck one single thing out, in this case, processed meat, and blames it for disease. They fail to recognize one or many other factors that have disease-causing potential. They fail to recognize things like:
- Lack of physical activity
- High Body Mass Index
- Overconsumption of sugar
- Alcohol intake
- Consumption of fried foods
You don’t need to be an expert to see that this list above has the potential to cause a lot of problems and these factors are not taken into consideration as red meat is singled out.
Combining Unprocessed Meat & Processed Meat
Again another misleading result as the difference between a Slim Jim and grass fed beef is night and day. Somehow out of all this hoopla came the idea that unprocessed fresh meat was under attack while the report was looking at processed meats.
When you look at the last 3 decades of research and findings fresh meat has actually very little to do with cancer. The associations between colorectal cancer and red meat are so weak they are considered “statistically insignificant”.
The most recent updates to this issue only show the continued weak association and the role of red meat causing colorectal cancer have been increasingly contested by the scientific community.
What You Can Take Away From All This
The main point for men out there and your families is that you don’t need red meat to be healthy. But if you do consume it, don’t worry about recent reports from the W.H.O and the media hoopla scare you away from it.
It’s probably safe to stay away from things like hot dogs and beef jerky, but we already knew that. One last thing is any studies conducted on fresh meat rarely use grass fed and finished hormone free, organic beef. This beef is the polar opposite of factory raised, farm lot grocery store beef that generally is used. Also not factored in are the cooking methods like high heat and smoking that can be responsible for creating carcinogens that are not found in the meat.
Similar to the rest of your diet, try to find the cleanest sources of food possible, and when you see reports and findings on any nutrition information, dig deeper and keep educating yourself on the entire issue.
And you don’t need to listen to the media, no matter how much Kim Kardashian tries to make you listen..
Featured photo credit: Ronald Sarayudej via flickr.com