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Pass the Meat? Is it Truly a “Hazard” to Eat Meat?

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Dr. Deborah Gordon.WELLNESSJust before the witches came out of hiding last month, the World Health Organization scared the bejeezus out of meat eaters around the world, claiming that processed meat causes cancer, and red meat probably does. We’ve heard something like that before, but this time they said the danger is on a level with cigarettes, their so-called “group 1” and cigarettes we KNOW can seriously increase your risk of cancer.

Am I unplugging my standing freezer full of local pork, lamb, and beef (after carefully removing the now sacred fish)? Not on your life, and I have room for your red meat if you’re afraid to eat it. Not much room, but a little.

Let’s imagine the WHO meeting, come with me to the closed room. A task force of 22 esteemed scientists met to determine the fate of meat, the names and dialogue I can only imagine.


Vegania:  Okay, has everyone made a thorough review of the scientific literature that I provided for this meeting?

Beefeater: Yes, you did a great job of collecting the data, and it leaves me with a clear impression, namely, that there is no consensus on the possible cancer risk of eating meat!

Vegania: Ahh, but remember, we are not assessing danger, or risk, but rather hazard, a much lower bar to meet. The question is whether meat (eww), at some level, under some circumstances, could pose a hazard when consumed. I think we can agree on that!

Lambduh: Bahh, I can’t see it that way at all. Our committee routinely works on a basis of unanimous consensus, and there’s no way we’re getting to consensus on this one, perhaps not even agreement.

Omnivory: It’s pretty clear to me that if everyone just includes their vegetables, this meat problem goes away. It seems irresponsible of us to categorically condemn meat, when it’s the lifestyles of many meat-eaters that we really want to address. If they’re smoking and skipping their veggies, it could be a hazard for them, but not otherwise.

Vegania: Ahah, well, then, you agree, that for some people, in some circumstances, it could be a hazard.

Porkie: Wait a minute, you’re subverting the intent of this committee. I can’t agree with that at all, it will be misleading. I will respectfully have to absent myself from this vote.

Seven of the 22 members of the committee decided not to vote, leaving 15 to formulate a decision.

Vegania: Well, then, do the remaining 15 of us have a consensus?

Lactovaline: I see your point, but I just can’t vote for it, I have to vote against your motion. I want people to eat meat responsibly, for themselves and for the planet!

In the end, the 15 remaining committee members passed the determination by majority, not by consensus.

Omnivory is right: there are real issues with meat. You can’t char the heck out of it and think it’s safe to eat. You can’t load up on steak and chops and skip the salad bar. You can’t smoke, and channel surf, and eat only meat, and expect a free pass to your senior years. So yes, for some people, in some circumstances, processed meat is a colon cancer hazard, and red meat might be.
Now let’s talk about the magnitude of hazard. As a man, your risk of lung cancer is 2300 percent higher if you smoke, a relative risk of 23. From one out of every 100 people, smoking bumps the rates up to 23 out of 100. Smoking accounts for one million global cancer deaths per year.

As reported by the WHO, the relative risk of eating meat isn’t anywhere near 23: it’s 1.17. So instead of 1 out of every 100 people (or 100 out of every 10,000), it will be 1.17 out of 100 (or 117 out of 10,000). Since the baseline risk of colon cancer, over a lifetime, is 4.5 percent, meat eaters watch out:  your risk goes up to 4.6 percent.

You can do better than that, though, you can lower your risk of colon cancer below the standard risk. How to do that? Remember to eat your veggies, avoid smoking your lungs or your food, and choose a basically healthy, omnivorous lifestyle! Optimize your exercise, sleep, and vitamin D levels and find a good doc to partner with. Doing all that, you can get that screening colonoscopy as you pass 50 and hear, “Clean as a whistle! See you back in 10 years.”

Read more of Dr. Deborah’s healthy insights at www.DrDeborahMD.com.


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