Does Meat Cause Cancer?

Illustration courtesy of Cancer Research UK.
Illustration courtesy of Cancer Research UK.

When I heard the news that the World Health Organization says that processed meats cause cancer and that red meat is a ‘probable’ cause, I knew there had to be more to the story. After all, how could these things, which many of us eat every single day, if not every meal, be causing so much illness without our even having noticed?

Sarah Zhang, who writes about Science for Wired Magazine does a great job of clarifying what would otherwise be a pretty scary thing:

“Here’s the deal: The WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer weighs the strength of the scientific evidence that some food, drink, pesticide, smokable plant, whatever is a carcinogen. What it does not do is consider how much that substance actually increases your risk for actually getting cancer—even if it differs by magnitudes of 100.”

Researchers agree that there is a large body of evidence that people who eat the most processed meat have a greater risk of developing colorectal cancer. So yes, just like cigarettes, it is a carcinogen. But the risks of the two are completely different.  Smoking increases your risk of lung cancer by 2,500 percent. Eating lots of bacon increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Sounds bad? Maybe not. As Zhang puts it “Given the frequency of colorectal cancer, that means your risk of getting colorectal cancer over your life goes from about 5 percent to 6 percent,” and even then, different people have different risk levels based on a whole variety of things.

So What Should We Do?

I have two suggestions. First, we already know that the best advice is “everything in moderation” and we know what we ought to be eating in general. As Casey Dunlop of Cancer Research UK reminds us:

“Our advice on diet stays the same: eat plenty of fibre, fruit and vegetables; cut back on red and processed meat, and salt; and limit your alcohol intake. It might sound boring but it’s true: healthy living is all about moderation.

“Except for smoking: that’s always bad for you.”

Meat Causes Cancer headlinesMy second suggestion is to remember why people write headlines: They’re to get you to read that publication so they can make money off the advertising they sell. And the people who write headlines know how to push our buttons. So next time you read something that makes you gasp or say, “OMG!” take a breath, relax and think to yourself, “There has to be more to the story.”



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