Meat and Cancer: Some Perspective

What is this all about?

All the vegans and hardcore vegetarians jumped for joy! The WHO declared processed meats as a carcinogen and red meat as a "probable" carcinogen. Your anti-meat friends smugly posted alarmist headlines with reckless abandon, while your crossfit bacon enthusiast friends remained uncharacteristically silent. 

Either way, everyone kept drinking their wine (carcinogenic),

Going out into the sunshine (carcinogenic),

breathing the air (carcinogenic),

and sipping on their coffees (possibly carcinogenic.)  

Is meat as dangerous as smoking?

Short and long answer: No. 

There are some things you need to consider to put this risk into perspective. The first thing is what I mentioned, above. Alcohol, tobacco, particulate in the air we breathe, the uv rays of the sun, wood dust, salted fish (Chinese-style), HPV, Hepatitis B & C, Epstein Barr virus, asbestos, formaldehyde, the medicines we use to combat cancer, and a bunch of other stuff is on the same tier as processed meat.  The commonality is the evidence of a ink, NOT the level of danger for that link. 

Hell, gamma radiation is on the same tier. I think I'll take my chances with the Chinese fish before I go play with gamma radiation. (But then again, the possibility of becoming a superhero is enticing...) 

Statistically speaking, smoking has a much higher risk of causing cancer than processed meat does. It blows meat out of the water. 21% of all bowel cancers are linked to processed meat, while 86% of lung cancers are caused by smoking. Also 19% of all cancers are linked to smoking, while 3% of all cancer is linked with high processed meat consumption. (Cancer Research UK)

How much risk are we talking, here?

If you eat more than 50g of processed meat a day, or 100g of red meat a day, over time, the researchers say, your risk of bowel cancer can go up 17%. YIKES! But what does that mean?

As Cancer Research UK puts it: 

"...this is a ‘relative’ risk, so let’s put it into perspective, and convert it to absolute numbers. Remember these are all ball-park figures – everyone’s risk will be different as there are many different factors at play.
We know that, out of every 1000 people in the UK, about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Those who eat the lowest amount of processed meat are likely to have a lower lifetime risk than the rest of the population (about 56 cases per 1000 low meat-eaters).
If this is correct, the WCRF’s analysis suggests that, among 1000 people who eat the most processed meat, you’d expect 66 to develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives – 10 more than the group who eat the least processed meat.

Again: If there is 1,000 low-meat eaters, 56 of them will develop bowel cancer. If there is 1,000 heavy meat eaters, 66 of them will develop bowel cancer. This is not a crazy big deal for your personal experience. However, when you inflate these numbers to the population of the globe, they do become significant, hence the WHOs ringing of the alarm bell. 

How can processed and red meat cause cancer?

No one knows for sure, but they speculate it may be the way it's cooked (high temperatures, grilling and searing create carcinogens), or maybe the nitrates used as preservatives. As far as red meat is concerned, it contains a chemical that may cause inflammation in our bowel, possibly leading to a replication mistake as the cells repair themselves, that leads to cancer. Rest assured, someone will eventually figure that shit out for us. 

So, what should I do, in the meantime?

Limit processed meat to once in awhile status. Limit red meat to less than 3 oz a day. Swap steak for fish, chicken or turkey sometimes. Eat more plant-based foods. Relax.

Look, if you only bothered to read underneath the scary headline, the articles all say the same thing: Don't freak out. This is a statistically significant finding, but eating meat doesn't simply cause cancer. Cancer is not so simple. The more PROCESSED and RED meat you eat, the more your SMALL risk goes up. It is definitely something to note, but not something that needs to be plaguing your mind. By now, we all know more phytonutrients and fiber is good for us. Get on board. But meat and animal-based food is not to be feared, just moderated. Meat contains essential proteins, iron, zinc and B vitamins that are very beneficial. And, no matter what your vegetarian friends say, plants aren't "protein packed." You have to eat so much more to get the amount in an ounce or two of meat. Plus, they're incomplete, which means your body has to unpack them and match them up with other foods in your diet to have all the essentials. 

My guess is we are going to be seeing a lot of preservative-free and nitrate-free options cropping up after this. And possibly a lot of cheaper options for antibiotic-free and hormone-free steak. That kind of bandwagoning is a good thing, right? 


Again, here are some more scientifically-backed articles, read past the headlines: