By now, I’m sure you’ve seen many reports across the internet that say meat causes cancer. That’s because a subsidiary of the World Health Organization, the “International Agency for Research on Cancer”, recently published a report that states “each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%”. Of course, there are also plenty of articles circulating around the internet trying to explain why we shouldn’t all become vegetarians based on this information. So to help you cut through all this conflicting information, here are some important things you need to know before making any major changes to your diet.
1. We already know processed meat isn’t that good for you
The term “processed meat” encompasses many foods ranging from deli meats and hot dogs, to beef jerky and smoked or cured meats. Such foods are loaded with salt, nitrates (what makes meat look red), and/or prepared using techniques that create a lot of carcinogens (e.g. smoking or high-temperature cooking). So really, this isn’t news.
2. Notice the word “daily”
If you pay close attention to their statement, you’ll notice the risk of cancer increases with “daily” ingestion of processed meats. However, most people aren’t eating deli meats and smoked meats every single day. Of course, if you are somebody who literally eats processed meats every day, then you might want to start thinking about cutting back on some of those. Maybe try replacing those Slim Jims with some fruit, nuts, or cheese instead!
3. The absolute risk for any given individual is still very small
While the IARC says that every year, around 34,000 deaths across the world are attributable to diets heavy in processed meat, this still only represents about 0.06% of all global deaths per year. In comparison, cancers brought on by smoking account for 1.7% of all deaths each year. In the grand scheme of things, you’re most likely going to die because of something else.
4. Diet isn’t the only risk factor for cancer
While we can calculate cancer risk across large populations, it’s ultimately very tough to predict cancer risk at the personal level. Cancer risk is based on a lot of variables, not just your diet. One of the most important influences on cancer risk is your personal DNA sequence. For example, there are many people across the world that have never smoked a day in their life, yet suffer from lung cancer because of their genetic background. Genetics aside, there are also countless other things that can affect cancer risk, ranging from alcohol consumption and cigarette smoking to simply just exercising. Therefore, even if you eat 50 grams of processed meats every day, the risk of colorectal cancer could be higher or lower than 18% for you.