Last week, we got a break from the news about presidential candidates as all the mainstream media outlets instead took turns covering the supposed hazards of moderate meat consumption. Yes — just months after the U.S. government finally took meat off the “do not eat list,” science bureaucrats at the World Health Organization (WHO) made the outrageous claim that processed meat like bacon, ham, and sausage pose as big a cancer risk as cigarettes.
In a moment, I’ll explain exactly what the science on meat shows — and exactly how off-base, misleading, and inaccurate some of those headlines really are. It raises the question, “What’s their beef,” when it comes to meat?
That saying actually reminds me of another presidential election season when a candidate’s catch phrase became, “Where’s the beef?”
Of course, that catch phrase started in 1984 when the fast-food chain Wendy’s released a commercial that featured an 81-year old character actress named Clara Peller ordering a burger from a competing chain. You could barely see the skimpy burger between two big floppy buns. So she asked, “But where’s the beef?”
The phrase caught on.
At the time, I worked in Miami as a Florida State Medical Examiner. And we lived in our first Florida condo, located behind “Burger King University” campus where they trained their new restaurant managers. So we paid some attention to the new ads.
We weren’t the only ones. Presidential candidate Walter Mondale did too.
Walter Mondale — who had served as Jimmy Carter’s Vice President — was running for the democratic nomination for President. Mondale was an old- fashioned, New Deal, Farmer-Labor, Liberal-Progressive. He followed in the footsteps of Hubert Humphrey who served as Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vice President and then ran for President in 1968. Mondale (and Humphrey) also reminded me of the illustrious Sen. Robert LaFollette.
Sure enough, Walter Mondale picked up on Wendy’s hit catch phrase in his primary fight against Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, who had been Sen. George McGovern’s national campaign manager in 1972. Hart was running a campaign of “new ideas.” It was the 1980s Rorschach Test equivalent of “hope and change.” And Mondale kept asking, “But where’s the beef?”
Of course Ronald Reagan won re-election that year by an historic landslide. So that ended Mondale and Hart’s beef with each other in short order.
Back to present day…what is the WHO’s new beef about meat? And is there any meat to it?
As I mentioned earlier, the WHO now claims bacon, ham, red meat, and sausage are as dangerous as smoking cigarettes. Of course, you know restricting cigarettes to less than half-a-pack per day does not have the same risks as heavy smoking. In fact, smoking less than half-a-pack per day even has some health benefits. But never mind, because the nannies have already won that battle and moved on to their next war…this time against meat.
This war on meat will give nanny government legislators and bureaucratic regulators more things to do. They will make new rules and guidelines that will interfere with our lives, our health, the economy, and jobs. Their war will also raise the cost of living — all without real science.
As I see it, there are three big, fat, juicy problems with their new attacks on meat…
First, there’s the problem of statistical significance. The studies the WHO cites show an incredibly small increase in colon cancer risk for men and women who eat these meats every day.
Thankfully, some news outlets have the good sense to seek out opinions from real scientists who know how to properly interpret statistics. And how to put it all into medical perspective.
In fact, as the Daily Telegraph reported, a number of real scientists disagree with the WHO’s proposals to limit red meat. Instead, they agree with me: eating these meats raises a person’s relative risk of developing colon cancer by a statistically insignificant amount. So it’s ridiculous to compare the effect of eating meat on colon cancer risk to the effect of heavy smoking on lung disease risk.
Let’s look at the actual numbers.
According to the WHO report, eating 50g of processed meat per day — which is less than two slices of bacon — increased the chance of bowel cancer by 17 percent. Which may sound significant.
But the risk of developing colon cancer by age 85 is around 8.5 in 100. So if everyone ate 50g of bacon, or one sausage, each day for the rest of their lives, these rates would only rise (by 17 percent) to 10 in 100 if the statistical association is real.
Second, the WHO’s argument against meat doesn’t consider biological plausibility. In other words, it doesn’t fit with what we know about how the body works.
In the case of smoking and lung cancer, there are plausible mechanisms about how smoking can contribute to lung cancer. (Although, the National Cancer Institute long ago gave up researching other obvious factors for lung cancer, such as genetics and respiratory enzyme function.)
Nobel laureate, Baruch Blumberg, faculty advisor for my M.D./Ph.D. degree program at University of Pennsylvania, always said it’s important to consider biological plausibility when it comes to small but significant statistical associations.
In this case, it means we need to determine by what means meat consumption could possibility contribute to colon cancer.
Real scientists say the mechanism is poorly defined when it comes to meat. In other words, no one can explain why or how eating meat would cause colon cancer.
In an interview, one expert made no bones about it. He said eating meat doesn’t cause cancer deaths and, “Avoiding red meat in the diet is not a protective strategy against cancer.” He cited a study of 60,000 people in the U.K. last year that found equal levels of bowel cancers in both meat eaters and vegetarians.
Plus, as I often report, vegetarians are typically deficient in key cancer-fighting nutrients such as the B vitamins, vitamin D, and key minerals, according to current scientific research.
And that brings me to my third point…
The WHO fails to acknowledge the wealth of evidence showing the nutritional benefits of eating meat.
Take protein, for example. Meat, together with fish, is the best source of protein there is. But most people don’t get enough of it. In fact, studies show people need about twice as much protein as what the government recommends just to maintain muscle mass, physical performance and vitality as they get older.
Furthermore, research shows older adults need far MORE protein in their diet. In one recent study, researchers found a middle-aged man should eat six ounces of lean ground beef (85 percent lean) in a single serving for optimal muscle protein synthesis. This is the optimal level for men who want to maintain muscle mass in their 50s and older. But that serving size is about twice what many health experts recommend in a single serving. And it’s more protein than “My Plate” recommends a 65-year-old man eat throughout the entire day!
Meat is also a rare and valuable source of bioavailable nutrients such as iodine, magnesium, zinc, and especially calcium. As I have always said, calcium supplements are ineffective and probably dangerous. So, you have to get calcium from foods. And meat is a prime source.
Your body also needs the cholesterol and fat found in meat, as study after study over the last 40 years show. The evidence is so strong, the U.S. government’s dietary guidelines committee recently took dietary cholesterol and saturated fats off the “do-not-eat” list after 40 years of giving out bad advice. That means meat is back on the U.S. government’s approved list, together with other healthy foods like butter and eggs.
But that was short-lived. Now — a few months later — an international committee puts meat back on the bad list?
While these bureaucrats continue to flip-flop and confuse themselves as well as others, let’s put it all together…
The risk of developing colon cancer from eating meat is miniscule…and lots of other research shows we absolutely need to eat more meat for optimal nutrition (especially as we get older). So why not simply continue our focus on screening for colon cancer? Several effective screening techniques can catch pre-cancerous growths long before they develop into colon cancer — without necessarily putting you through the discomfort (and significant risk) of a colonoscopy straight away.
For example, you can easily take the “heme occult” test (or the new DNA test) right at home, on a regular basis to detect any microscopic bleeding in the GI tract. You can also go in to get a digital rectal exam right in the doctor’s office as part of a routine physical. Doctors can perform this simple test to screen for rectal as well as prostate cancer. Or you may want to opt for a flexible sigmoidoscopy, or the new CT colonography, as I reported recently in my Insiders’ Cures newsletter. All of these screening tools are effective alternatives to try short of colonoscopies. Consult with your physician about appropriate options for you — but make sure to get screening.
And keep in mind, it takes an average of 15 years for a pre-cancerous growth in the colon to develop into cancer. With appropriate screening, you can protect yourself against developing colon cancer, regardless of any hypothetical dietary intakes.
So what’s the point to all the noise from the WHO and the news media about meat? In other words, “Where’s the beef?” In a future Dispatch, I will explain more about the hazards of focusing research on just one food, while ignoring the impacts of other foods and nutrients in a balanced diet.
- “WHO report: Major snag in link between processed meat and cancer,” Daily Telegraph (www.dailytelegraph.com) 10/27/2015
- “Experts attack claims that bacon is ‘as big a cancer threat as smoking’,” Daily Telegraph (www.dailytelegraph.com) 10/26/2015
- “Links between processed meat and colorectal cancer,” World Health Organization (www.who.int) 10/29/2015