Sorting Out Confusion Over Meat and Cancer Risk
Pamela A. Popper, Ph.D., N.D.
Wellness Forum Health
In 2015, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) issued a report stating that processed meats raise the risk of colon and stomach cancer, and most likely red meat increases the risk too. Red meat refers to foods like beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, horse, and goat. Processed meat refers to any animal flesh that has been salted, cured, fermented, smoked or been processed in a way that enhances flavor or presentation.
The IARC charged 22 researchers with evaluating over 800 studies looking at the relationship between various types of meat and 12 types of cancer during the last 20 years. The researchers reported that processed meat was a Group 1 carcinogen and that for every 50 gram portion (1.7 ounces) of processed meat consumed daily, the risk of colorectal cancer increased by 18%. This places processed meats in the same category as smoking and asbestos.
Red meat was reported as “probably carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2A) based on “limited evidence that the consumption of red meat causes cancer and strong mechanistic evidence supporting a carcinogenic effect.” Red meat, according to the IARC, is “probably” linked to colon, prostate, and pancreatic cancers.
The researchers noted that the increased risk of colorectal cancer due to processed meats remains small, but that risk increases with intake – a dose-dependent effect. The researchers also reported that “…red meat has nutritional value. Therefore these results are important in enabling governments and international regulatory agencies to conduct risk assessments in order to balance the risks and benefits of eating red meat and processed meat and to provide the best possible dietary recommendations.”
A flurry of articles and comments followed the report and the news stories about it. Advocates of plant-based diets stated that this report is proof positive that people should eat no meat, no animal foods, and adopt a vegan diet. As expected, agricultural groups, food manufacturers, lobbyists, and promoters of bad diets capitalized on statements such as “…red meat has nutritional value…” and the use of term like “probably” and “small increase in risk,” to reassure carnivores that it really is ok to eat a diet that includes copious amounts of animal food.
The North American Meat Institute issued a statement saying that “…cancer is a complex disease not caused by single foods.” The organization is actually right about this; the totality of the dietary pattern determines health.
Gunter Kuhnle, a food nutrition scientist at the University of Reading said that “Three cigarettes per day increases the risk of lung cancer sixfold, or 500%, compared with the 18 percent from eating a couple of slices of bologna a day. This is very relevant from a public health point of view…But it should not be used for scaremongering.”
John Ioannidis, chairman of disease prevention at Stanford University commented, “I think it’s very important that we don’t terrorize people into thinking that they should not eat any red meat at all. There’s some risk involved, but it’s much less than smoking or alcohol. I think it would be an exaggeration to say based on this that no one should be eating red or processed meat.”
Both sides are wrong about this issue. Advocates of vegan diets exaggerate the risk of eating any animal foods at all in order to justify recommending a vegan diet for everyone, ignoring the fact that all over the world, the populations we all love to refer to as eating optimally and enjoying optimal health are not vegans. They propose an all or nothing solution – either eat a vegan diet or your risk of cancer will be high.
Advocates of animal foods-based diets ignore the fact that people don’t eat pristine, optimal diets with 2 slices of bacon each day. Most people eat terrible diets with much if not most of their calories from animal foods, oils, and processed foods. The cumulative effect of all the bad choices is what causes disease, not the 2 slices of bacon alone.
The bottom line is that dietary choices individually have little meaning. It is the overall dietary pattern that matters most. A person eating a Wellness Forum Health-style diet that includes 2-3 servings of organic animal food or wild caught fish each week, and who has a hot dog on Memorial Day is likely to have a long and healthy life. The vegan who eats no animal food, never touches hot dogs, but eats potato chips, uses oil in cooking, carries extra body fat and does not exercise, is likely to have health issues.
The debate will continue and, just as in politics, the extreme stance of both sides confuses the public and stands in the way of progress.
Bouvard V, Loomis D, Guyton K et al. on behalf of the International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. “Carcinogenity of consumption of red and processed meat.” Lancet Oncology December 2015;16(16):1599-1600
Angela Charlton. “Study: Meats increase risk of cancer.” Columbus Dispatch Oct 27 2015
Anahad O’Connor “Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk W.H.O. Report Finds.” New York Times Oct 26 2015