Will Red Meat Kill You?
If you follow nutritional news, health blogs or generally worry that everything is going to kill you, then you will undoubtedly have heard the claim that red meat will give you cancer.
Go back to the year 2015 and no further than the World Health Organisation, who (no pun intended) published findings that suggest consumption of red meat and processed meat to be carcinogenic.
A carcinogen is a substance that can create cancer in our bodies by changing a cell’s DNA. They even placing processed meat as a group one carcinogen which ranks it alongside the likes of handling plutonium or smoking tobacco! .
Recent ‘health’ documentaries like What The Health have supported this notion and have even gone as far as to suggest that ALL animal products including eggs, chicken and fish are bad for your health!
Aside from the overtly pro plant-based diet fear mongering) are these claims correct? Should we ditch processed meat? Should we even ditch red meat?
Red meat vs processed meat
In this post I want to solely focus on red meat and processed meat otherwise the length of the post will escalate.
When we refer to red meat we refer to any mammalian meat such as cow, pork, lamb and veal (not fish as some people believe). Processed meat has other ‘bits’ added in to it. Processes such as smoked meat, cured meat and salted meat which aim to increase the shelf life of the meat.
What does the research suggest?
If you take a look at the research that has been carried out you immediately identify that people who eat a lot of red meat show an association with cancer risk and cardiovascular disease. For example one study showed an increase risk of mortality via cancer with red meat consumption  and another study looked at the correlation between socio-economic classes and the risks of cancer (as lower classes tend to eat more red meat).
The studies had the numbers so it wasn't as if 50 people were examined. Study 3 had over 120,000 subjects whilst study 4 looked at over 409,000 subjects. I could probably list another half a dozen epidemiological studies that suggest the same findings.
Pretty concrete evidence right? We should remove all red meat and processed meat from our diet right?
The limitations of the research
The immediate conclusion people make while reading these studies is that red meat =cancer. What needs to be understood is that the evidence suggests there is an association with cancer.Two completely different things.
There are WAY TOO MANY other factors at play in theses studies to specifically blame red meat and processed meat.
Let me give you an example:
Ice cream sales increase during the summer. Murder rates also increase during the summer. Therefore the increase in ice cream sales causes the increase in murder rates.
Do you see the problem here? This is a classic example of two variables that show a correlation and not a causation. Studies like the ones above are great because they identify potential patterns like red meat and cancer but these patterns almost always need to be explored further.
When someone says to you “I read a study that said…” alarm bells should be ringing. Yes, the study probably suggests a possible pattern, but you can’t draw a definite conclusion from this alone. This is why nutritional research is so difficult. Did the subjects in the study also:
⦁ eat enough fruit and vegetables ⦁ get enough sleep ⦁ eat enough fibre ⦁ exercise enough ⦁ consume way too many calories ⦁ stress too much ⦁ smoke tobacco ⦁ drink enough water
If you look at study number 3, you will also see that the populations that ate a lot of red meat generally; consumed more calories, had a higher tendency to smoke, exercised a lot less, ate fewer fruits and vegetables and ranked lower socioeconomically which meant that quality of meat was lower.
Also in the two studies cited, participants were given a food frequency questionnaire to fill out. These can be highly inaccurate as people are terrible at reporting food intake (trust me I see this all the time), whether through laziness or general embarrassment. Issues like this make the data flawed.
We also don’t know what kind of meat the participants ate, such as grass fed or organic? These could be potential game changers to the results of the study as the nutritional quality for grass fed and organic meat is generally going to be a lot better.
People also get information wrong because they misinterpret what the percentage chances are of getting a disease like cancer. According to the IARC (a branch of the World Health Organisation that study cancer) a single 50 gram serving of processed meat consumption per day increases the likelihood of colorectal cancer by 18% . But that doesn’t mean you have an 18% greater chance of developing that cancer.
Everybody has a starting chance of getting this particular cancer, something like a 5% chance. But eating a single serving of processed meat every day increases this percentage chance by 18% to 5.9%. It’s an 18% increase to your starting cancer risk. This is known as relative risk.
The IARC concluded processed meat definitely increases your risk of coleretcal cancer which is why processed meat is a group one carcinogen. But just because it's group one doesn’t mean it is equally as dangerous as other things in that group!
Remember when I said other group one carcinogens are things like plutonium and smoking tobacco. If you smoke tobacco you increase your chances of certain cancers by 1900%!
The classification system the World Health Organisation use is based on evidence presented and not on comparable risk. Therefore processed meat is not equally likely to give you cancer as smoking tobacco.
So yes, processed meat increases the chance of colorectal cancer, even if the relative risk is vastly lower than most people make out. But does red meat also cause cancer?
The answer is we do not know. There's no denying that there is an association from a population wide basis but that's about all we know. The World Health Organisation has classified red meat as group 2A carcinogen which translates as there is not enough evidence to say either way.
Does that mean everyone can eat red meat until the cows come home (no pun intended)?
Well the studies cited above are classic examples of the standard American diet - a diet that is filled with an over-abidance of calories and a low amount of fruits, vegetables and fibre. The difference between the standard American diet and a diet filled with a ton of fruit and vegetables is alarming and I can see why people are mistaken when they think all meat, especially red meat is bad for them.
But a Big Mac meal is not the same as grass fed beef chilli con carne.
As we don't know a god RDA for red meat, I would suggest favouring other meats such as chicken, eggs and fish but not totally dropping red meat from the diet. Remember, if your diet is filled with a ton of fruits, vegetables and fibre you are more than likely WAY ahead of the subjects from the above studies.
However processed meat is something that you want to limit. I’ve heard both sides of the argument when it comes to processed meat in that you can eat it free reign as long as you are exercising, getting enough nutrients, do not smoke etc; or that you should completely remove it from your diet to avoid any potential risk.
For me, I would say just to be safe, to again LIMIT, and not necessarily remove processed meat from the diet. People that love a bacon sandwich can still enjoy them on occasion guilt free.
Unfortunately there is no RDA or amount to go by for either group of meat, you just have to be self-aware of what you are eating. If you are eating pounds of processed meat than yeah – probably a good idea to cut back there buddy. But cover the basics like exercise, calorie control, getting enough sleep, reducing stress levels etc and you're on to a winner.
I enjoy both processed meat and red meat and consume lamb or beef burgers once or twice per week and on occasion have a couple rashers of bacon. Notice here I’m not gunning the bacon and steaks every morning.
This is not scientifically backed and is purely anecdotal but I wanted to provide some context in case you were wondering.
There it is, hopefully an objective take on an apparently controversial subject.
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1) World Health Organisation (2015) Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/
2) Hall H. (2017) What The Health: A Movie With An Agenda https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/what-the-health-a-movie-with-an-agenda/
3) Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, Schulze MB, Manson JE, Stampfer MJ, Willett WC & Hu FB. (2012) Red meat consumption and mortality: results from 2 prospective cohort studies https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22412075
4) Major JM, Cross AJ, Doubeni CA, Park Y, Lian M, Hollenbeck AR, Schatzkin A, Graubard BI, Sinha R. (2011) Socioeconomic deprivation impact on meat intake and mortality: NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21971817
5) International Agency for Research on Cancer (2015) IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf