Bros, spit out your steak. Burn your bacon and never let it touch your lips again. It’s official, those foods are giving us the big C. That’s right, eating a steak is now officially just like smoking a carton of American Spirit’s Unfiltered.
At least that’s what the media is making this most recent announcement out of the WHO.
For those who don’t know, the WHO recently came out and said that processed meat causes cancer. Unlike most announcements, there were no “maybes” about processed meats. The WHO is pretty damn confident that processed meat causes cancer, and says that red meat probably does as well.
That’s pretty damning evidence against red meat and processed meats. For those of us who like to eat bacon, burgers, steaks, veal, and other fatty cuts of processed/red meats, it’s definitely not good news.
However, it’s still worth examining whether or not frying up some bacon is the equivalent of lighting up some Lucky Strikes, so we’re going to take a deeper look at this announcement.
First off: The International Agency for Research On Cancer is the board that made the announcement. They’re a highly respected body of experts who take a look at existing evidence to determine cancer risks. More often than not this group isn’t conducting actual studies, they’re performing meta analysis, or studies of existing studies.
In this particular instance, they took a look at over 800 existing studies regarding processed/red meats and cancer.
Thanks to the existing evidence, it’s pretty safe to say that a higher intake of these types of meats can be associated with bowel cancer, and maybe even stomach and pancreatic cancer as well.
What the IARC found was that a higher intake of processed and red meats led to a 17% increased risk of cancer. 17% is a pretty striking number, but that needs to be put in perspective.
In the UK, for every 1000 people about 61 will develop bowel cancer. For those that eat the less processed meats, that number is around 56. For those that eat more, that number is 66. So 17% may sound huge, but in absolute terms it’s not as high as it sounds.
Still, meats are the new cigarettes?
That evidence was enough for the IARC to determine that red and processed meats cause cancer. Like earlier, this needs some perspective though. The job of the IARC is to determine how confident they are that something causes cancer.
After examining existing evidence, they decided that processed meats belonged in Category 1, along with cigarettes. This doesn’t mean these things cause a lot of cancer, it just means they’re confident they cause cancer.
That may sound like nitpicking, but it’s a pretty big freaking difference. An analogy by Professor David Phillips, one of the leading cancer researchers in the world puts this difference perfectly:
Think of banana skins. They definitely can cause accidents – but in practice this doesn’t happen very often (unless you work in a banana factory). And the sort of harm you can come to from slipping on a banana skin isn’t generally as severe as, say, being in a car accident.
But under a hazard identification system like IARC’s, ‘banana skins’ and ‘cars’ would come under the same category – they both definitely do cause accidents.
So, how much cancer are you eating?
This isn’t as clear of an answer as we would hope. We all want to know that it’s cool to eat 8 slices of bacon for breakfast and wash it down with a burger at lunch.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a defined amount of processed or red meat that is known to be safe. It’s wise to say though that most of us are probably eating too much.
Choosing lighter cuts of meat like fish and chicken are probably going to be better for long-term health and put us at a lower risk of cancer. At least until some study comes out saying those cause cancer, which will probably happen at some point.
All in all, if you’re eating a few slices of bacon, a steak, or a burger every week it’s probably not going to kill you. If you’re eating all of that every day, you probably need to make some changes though.