The WHO, Red Meat, And Cancer: Everything You Need To Know

Senior Contributor
10.26.15 13 Comments
mmmm steak

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Today, the UN made the shocking announcement that eating bacon is bad for you. Joking aside, they announced that after analyzing the research in the field that processed meat is carcinogenic, and that red meat is “probably” carcinogenic. But don’t get smug yet, vegans: There are a lot of caveats to this study, and some basic realities the WHO should know better than to gloss over.

Wait, isn’t this the UN?

Yup. Specifically, the announcement was made by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. So this isn’t some vegan group that wants to lecture poor people about how much better they are.

So, the UN thinks red meat will give me cancer?

Sort of. Here’s the exact wording from the article in the Lancet, which nobody bothered to read before going ballistic:

On the basis of the large amount of data and the consistent associations of colorectal cancer with consumption of processed meat across studies in different populations, which make chance, bias, and confounding unlikely as explanations, a majority of the Working Group concluded that there is sufficient evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of processed meat.

Uh… how much carcinogenicity?

We only have hard numbers on colorectal cancer, which they claim rises 17% per 100 grams red meat regularly and 18% if you eat 50 grams of processed meat a day. But the red meat thing doesn’t matter much, because, according to that paper again:

Chance, bias, and confounding could not be ruled out with the same degree of confidence for the data on red meat consumption, since no clear association was seen in several of the high quality studies and residual confounding from other diet and lifestyle risk is difficult to exclude. The Working Group concluded that there is limited evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat.

In other words, red meat might give you cancer, but it could be also any one of a myriad of bad habits. Now ask me how likely it is you’ll get colorectal cancer.

OK, how likely is it I will get colorectal cancer?

Not very! Which is something the WHO left out of its report and really kinda shoulda sorta brought up. Rounding the numbers, this gives your average 30 year old eating a bacon cheeseburger every day a staggering .09% chance of getting colorectal cancer by the time he’s 40, compared to the average of .07%.

Now, the chances of colorectal cancer do rise with age. So if you are a man getting your AARP card, it’s probably a good idea to stop eating meat on a regular basis if you have a history of colorectal cancer. But your doctor has probably already told you this because it’s not like old men don’t have other health problems you can address by eating more salads.

Ladies, enjoy your burgers. The other cancers mentioned in the report were pancreatic and prostate cancer, and pancreatic cancer has low odds anyway. And there’s no hard percentages in this article anyway, so one suspects that will drop.

Wait, wait, wait, so they did all this research…

Nope! They researched the research! And some of that research sounds like it included self-reporting, which is awful.

OK, they read all this research, and this is what they came up? Bacon might be slightly worse for me than I thought?

Yep! That’s it! That’s everything. Don’t eat a lot of something you already know not to eat a lot of.

I don’t have to worry about this! I’m a vegan!

Then you’re probably screwed as well! Vegan diets are low in vitamin B12… which, surprise, may help encourage colorectal cancer! It’s also low in calcium, which also may help encourage colorectal cancer! In other words, if you’ve got a history, the only “cure” is going to be going to the doctor regularly and letting him stuff a camera up your butt.

This seems a lot of noise for nothing.

That’s more or less what it is. To be frank, this comes off as incredibly irresponsible on the part of the WHO. It’s bad enough people think there are diets that will make you magically immune to cancer, which is a family of diseases with incredibly complicated causes rooted in environment and genetics. But we need to start seeing cancer as more complex than this and to celebrate our victories, not cause fear.

So what’s the ultimate takeaway?

Eat more plants than meat, try to make that meat chicken or fish where you can, enjoy milk and eggs, and don’t get your health advice from Facebook. And be sure to enjoy life, like when you tell the smug vegan across from you about those deficiency issues.

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