Cancer, Red Meat, and What You Don’t Know
Cancer is one of the most-studied diseases of all time. The amount of money and energy that goes into studying cancer is staggering.
And that’s a very good thing, since cancer is not only prevalent but also deadly and terrible in general.
Unfortunately, in many ways, we actually don’t know all that much about cancer and its causes, particularly as it relates to our diets. But we’re learning more every year.
Does Red Meat Increase Your Risk of Cancer?
I recently found and read the below paper, published in the journal Meat Science (yes, there is such a journal, and no, I haven’t read it before):
The researchers, most of whom are from Norway (along with a few from the US), held a workshop in Oslo, Norway to assess the current state of knowledge relating to cancer and diet (particularly meat).
As you probably know, for about the past 50 years, mainstream nutrition and health has attempted to link red meat to higher incidences of cancer. And if we examine “Western” populations like the US, then the people who eat more red meat are more likely to develop cancer, in general.
But as you also know, those epidemiological studies are plagued by a variety of problems, most notably the healthy-user bias. Since “Western” populations have been told for the past 50 years that red meat is unhealthy, the people who eat less red meat tend to be more health-conscious overall and therefore do a ton of things that can’t really be accounted for or controlled in any study, thereby dramatically skewing the results. The few studies that have been done trying to account for this bias have found no difference between meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters.
But that’s not what the above paper was interested in. The above paper was much more interested in what we absolutely know or don’t know about the link among cancer, diet, meat, and other foods.
What We Absolutely Know About Red Meat and Cancer
As it turns out, according to the paper, we don’t know much at all for certain, but modern science is quickly figuring out a lot of things.
Here’s what was most interesting from the paper:
1. There’s no strong evidence linking red meat to cancer. It just doesn’t exist, and there are a lot of studies showing little to no effect (or even protective effects of red meat).
2. The story is a lot more complicated than any single food. I think this speaks for itself, but the researchers point out that “individuals consuming a lot of red and processed meat may often also consumer [sic] more energy rich food products such as sugary drinks and sugar-rich condiments, drink more alcohol, eat less vegetables, take less vitamins and are less physically active.” Hello, healthy-user bias.
3. What our red meat is fed is likely to make a difference. The researchers cite 5 different studies in noting that “Beneficial changes may also be obtained by improved feeding of pigs and cattle.” In other words, soy and grains aren’t much better for our pigs and cattle than they are for us.
4. Gut Bacteria is hugely important. Researchers are starting to become more and more aware of the importance of gut bacteria, thankfully, and the researchers in this case note that people eating diets very high in red meat may be crowding out many prebiotic foods like vegetables and fruits that are integral to the functioning of our guts.
The research is getting better, but we still don’t know everything.
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that our gut bacteria play an even bigger role than we previously thought and that we’re probably best off eating an assortment of vegetables, meats, seafood, and fruits.
Not that it’s any surprise.
Images: Copyright © giovanniluca from Fotolia