As I’m sure you’re aware by now, “bacon has been declared as dangerous as smoking.” I love a good overblown health news headline as much as the next person, but this one is especially egregious. As I mentioned just last week when we looked at the dangers of occupational sitting, the problem with these sensationalist headlines is that they get too focused on a single risk factor and neglect the big picture. Let’s take a look at the actual risk from processed meat and red meat and then see why they can still be part of a healthy lifestyle.
World Health Organization declares processed meat carcinogenic and red meat probably carcinogenic
The announcement that started the latest media craze was an announcement from the World Health Organization (WHO) that every 50 gram portion of processed meats eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. They defined processed meats as “meat that has been transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking, or other processes to enhance flavour or improve preservation. Most processed meats contain pork or beef, but processed meats may also contain other red meats, poultry, offal, or meat by-products such as blood.”
I think everyone understands that bacon isn’t good for us and should be eaten sparingly, but declaring it as bad as smoking misses the point of the report just a bit. The problem is that the World Health Organization simply places things in categories based on the amount of evidence supporting causation rather than on how much it truly increases the risk. Both smoking and processed meats were placed in Group 1 (carcinogenic to humans) because the evidence was strong. However, while processed meats increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent, smoking increases your lung cancer risks by 2500 percent. That would be more. To really put it into perspective, your lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is 4.84 percent for men and 4.49 percent for women. If you ate 50 grams of processed meat (about 2 pieces of bacon or 1 hot dog) every single day and did nothing to decrease your risks (I’ll get into that later), you would increase your lifetime risk of colorectal cancer to 5.71 percent for men and 5.30 percent for women. Once again, a whole lot less than 2500 percent.
The endless red meat debate
Why doesn’t the World Health Organization give specific portion recommendations for red meat? Because the evidence is not exactly conclusive. That’s also why they placed it in Group 2A (probably carcinogenic to humans).
I’ve been talking people down off the “deadly” red meat ledge for about a decade now. Studies decrying the dangers of red meat pop up all the time. Most of them were epidemiological studies that concluded red meat was the cause of illnesses like cancer even though they always throw in a rather important line deep in the study saying that “people that ate red meat also tended to smoke more, drink more, exercise the least, and eat low amounts of fruits and vegetables.” Each of these alone is a far greater risk factor, and lumping them together as incidental factors is flat out fraud in my opinion. It’s my prime example concerning epidemiological studies and researcher bias. The researchers wanted red meat to be the cause before they even began looking at associations, so to make their conclusions work, they simply ignored everything else.
Recent studies pointing to red meat as cancer causing have switched tactics from burying other risk factors in the footnotes to focusing on insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1) as the reason for red meat’s dangerous side effects. Like the name implies, IGF-1 promotes growth and if you do have cancer cells in your system, IGF-1 can cause them to proliferate. The three cancers that seem to flourish the most in the presence of IGF-1 are colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and pre-menopausal breast cancer. This doesn’t mean that it causes these cancers, but high levels of IGF-1 can help them take off. It’s why these studies recommend avoiding red meat (and often animal protein in general) to lower levels of IGF-1 and protect against cancer risk. The problem is that IGF-1 also has a host of benefits like it protects against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, it prevents age-related muscle wasting, and most importantly, it protects against cardiovascular disease, which is a bigger killer than all cancers combined.
This is the problem with cancer in general. Ultimately it comes from our own cells, so anything that helps our cells can help cancer cells. It’s just like the discovery that antioxidants help melanoma cells spread. Antioxidants protect our cells against oxidative stress which is normally a good thing, but when melanoma cells metastasize and spread throughout the body, they are under incredible oxidative stress which kills off a great deal of these harmful cells. Antioxidants can protect that from happening and allow them to spread throughout the body and ultimately lead to death. Does it mean antioxidants are bad all the time? No, but sometimes when things go wrong, they can make it worse.
This is the problem with our knee-jerk reaction to a single risk factor. Banning red meat may reduce the risks of some types of cancers, but it also may increase the mortality risks from other causes. Another study found that amino acids from animal sources helped protect against arterial stiffness (a major contributor to cardiovascular disease) as much as quitting smoking, while amino acids from plant sources helped lower blood pressure as much as salt restrictions and exercise. Both sources have their unique benefits and removing one source or the other from your diet only increases your overall risks.
Focus on the big picture
Even though there is a strong link between processed meats and colorectal cancer, I don’t plan to give up bacon any time soon, and you don’t need to either. I don’t suggest you eat processed meats daily (or processed anything for that matter), but it’s still OK to enjoy it from time to time. Daily consumption may increase your risks by 18 percent, but routine exercise reduces your risks by up to 40 percent, and a diet rich in high-fiber fruits and vegetables decreases those risks even further. Red meat is not the villain the media is currently making it out to be, nor is it the hero. It’s simply a part of a healthy lifestyle. If you eat it in reasonable amounts, it will confer all kinds of benefits. If you overdo it and eat it in place of healthy fruits and vegetables, then it will contribute to problems. Keep your meals balanced with the types of food I always recommend and stay active and your body will protect you from the harsh effects of our environment.