Opinion | Red meat scare is overblown

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Opinion | Red meat scare is overblown

By Austin Stadelman, Columnist

Eating meat, especially red meat, is often demonized as a cause for increased risk of cancer. Many headlines in the media often point to new studies that find evidence for this notion, resulting in people panicking about their diets and cancer risk. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has gone so far as listing processed red meat as being carcinogenic to humans — meaning that it acts as a cause for cancer — and even unprocessed red meat as “probably” carcinogenic to humans.

The WHO based its categorization on research provided by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) which published that each 50 gram increase in consumption of processed meat daily would lead to an 18% increased risk of colon cancer. That certainly seems like a significant number, but looking at the actual research behind such proclamations, the data found tells a much different story from the alarmist narrative. 

Dr. Aaron E. Carroll at Indiana University has covered what an 18% increase in lifetime risk actually means, saying that, “If I decided today to start eating an extra three pieces of bacon every day for the next 30 years, my risk of getting colon cancer might go from 2.7% to 3.2%.” This means that if 200 people decided to consume that amount of processed meat, one extra person might develop colon cancer. Dr. Carroll insists that even that should be taken with a grain of salt.

Further commenting on a study that found increased risk in diabetes and cancer from high protein intake, Dr. Carroll points out that the findings in the report, used in part for the WHO’s classification was “from a subanalysis that looked at people only 50 to 65. But if you look at people over 65, the opposite was true. High protein was associated with lower levels of all-cause and cancer-specific mortality.” 

When looking at all of the sampled population, there were “no associations between protein consumption and death from all causes or cardiovascular disease or cancer.” Despite the contradictory evidence within the study and the study itself not claiming any causal relationship, media outlets and people will cherry-pick the panic-inducing information. 

Dr. Carroll further elaborates on problems with media reports of nutritional findings and the inconsistencies in the data that those findings are based on.

Nutritional studies are almost always observational and not randomized, controlled trials. This means that the studies are conducted by asking people what they eat at different periods over time instead of being able to actually control and compare people’s diets and lifestyles. The problem with conducting observational studies is that there are an abundance of confounding variables that might affect the outcomes of the subjects’ health. 

Variables such as exercise, other dietary habits and family histories of certain cancers and diseases can deeply affect the likelihood of a bad health outcome rather than a single component of one’s diet (e.g. red meat). This makes it nearly impossible to identify causal relationships between meat and cancer from current data.

In addition to that, observational studies regarding food consumption are always administered through questionnaires, which are immensely prone to human error. People generally aren’t the best at remembering what they eat in terms of specificities and that is a major problem when trying to come up with causal relationships between food consumption and health outcomes.

Since all meat and cancer studies are based on correlative evidence, it leaves much room for debate and further research, but the research we do have to link the two is weak and inconsistent at best.

In a more general sense, indulging in too much of many things causes cancer, but not all causes are equally dramatic. Smoking and UV rays both cause cancer, but the degree of danger for each cause is drastically different. Smoking is objectively bad, having your skin be exposed to sunlight in a non-tanning or sunburn-causing way is not. 

The same principle is true with meat consumption, as a 2013 meta-analysis that found weak associations between red meat and cancer observed people eating one to two servings of red meat a day for years on end. Most people do not do that. Odds are you don’t either.

There are valid reasons for cutting meat, especially red meat, out of one’s diet. The torturous treatment of animals and the damaging environmental impacts the meat industry causes are both legitimate ethical and environmental reasons for reducing or eliminating meat from a daily meal. However, having some steak is more than likely not going to increase your lifetime health risks.

Austin is a senior in LAS.

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