The World Health Organization has just declared that asbestos, tobacco, your bacon cheeseburger, and that ham sandwich you're about to eat are all going to kill you, for sure. And that steak you're going to eat for dinner? That is probably going to end your life, They're pretty certain about that.
This is the first time in history that any organization has made such an aggressive declaration against meat, and understandably it has people talking. But is it true? Are processed meats definitely carcinogenic? And red meat - including beef, pork, and lamb -- is that most likely cancer-causing as well? Let's look a bit closer at what we know (and what we don't).
The reason why this declaration hasn't been made before is because the evidence for such a pronouncement has always been fairly weak, and it still is. It's based on what we call 'observational' or 'epidemiological' studies, which means that the results stem from patterns in a population. So if 1,000 people in a city die of cancer and we know that they all ate processed meat 6 times a week while they were living, we may be able to draw a correlation between processed meat and cancer. We also know, however, that people who eat processed meat a lot tend to smoke more, drink more alcohol, and eat less fruits and vegetables than people who don't eat processed meat or don't eat it often. These behaviours all increase cancer risk too. So what was it? The ham or the booze? The cigarettes or the fast food?
What I'm saying is that it's extremely hard to tease out whether it was the processed meat that killed these people, because maybe it was the 24oz of vodka they drank a week, or maybe it was the overall crappy diet they had. There have also been studies that have shown that reduced meat intake did NOT reduce cancer risk. Wow! Confused yet?
Doing a more direct study to determine whether or not it was their ham sandwiches that caused these people to die of cancer is virtually impossible. Researchers would have to draft very large groups of people to eat varying amounts of meat or no meat at all, for years at a time. It hasn't happened yet, so we're stuck with observational evidence like the evidence that this WHO declaration is based on. The WHO is certain, however, that processed meat is carcinogenic, and it probably is. Their approach, however, is pretty heavy-handed.
We also have to consider absolute risk. In other words, if you stopped eating meat altogether, how much less likely are you to get cancer? The WHO has determined that with each 50 gram (1.7oz) portion of processed meat consumed daily, people have an 18% higher risk of dying of cancer. Cancer Research UK states:
To put the risk into perspective, Cancer Research UK notes out of every 1,000 people in the U.K., about 61 will develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives. Among 1,000 people who eat a lot of processed meat, you'd expect 66 to develop bowel cancer at some point in their lives -- 10 more than the group that eats the least processed meat.
And since the WHO is grouping meat in with tobacco, let's see how they compare in terms of cancer risk. Consider this awesome infographic, again from Cancer Research UK:
Processed meats are not health food. We've known for a really long time that they may increase the risk of bowel and stomach cancers, so that's not really new and exciting information. My dad used to yell at us for eating hot dogs 35 years ago because he knew that the nitrites in them weren't healthy. And large amounts of red meat has in the recent past been associated weakly with an increased risk of health problems. The new and exciting -- and perhaps overly aggressive-- news is that the WHO is making definite proclamations -- especially for processed meats, and grouping them in with some pretty deadly stuff like tobacco. Meat is the new smoking! Wait, I thought sugar is the next smoking. Or no, standing is the new smoking. We're not going to be able to do much soon without harming ourselves, so it seems. So let's not be so overly aggressive in our assertions and take a step back.
Here is my advice.
Take any nutrition research with a grain of salt.
Most people know that processed meats aren't healthy, so eat them sparingly - say, once a week at the most.
Don't be fooled by 'natural' deli meats.
Cultured celery extract, which is what the 'natural' processed meats use as a preservative, is a nitrite, and it still behaves like one in your body.
Don't be afraid of red meat.
Red meat is a great source of protein, zinc, and B vitamins. Eat smaller amounts of lean cuts once or twice a week.
Examine the rest of your diet and clean up the crap in it.
Try to eat less ultra-processed nonsense and more whole foods. Cook for yourself more, and I don't mean Kraft Dinner.
Eat more plants!! Enough said.
Remember, most of all, that the dose makes the poison.
If you have an overall healthy dietary pattern, there is zero reason for you to avoid meat. Eat a variety of foods, most of them whole. Enjoy your food. And don't fear the ham sandwich -- just maybe eat it less often.