Second Opinion: Scare stories about food do not and will not change health behaviour

Eating quality red meat no more than three times a week is safe

Irish people’s relationship with red meat has always been problematic, leading not only to cancer but to cardiovascular diseases. Photograph: Thinkstock

Irish people’s relationship with red meat has always been problematic, leading not only to cancer but to cardiovascular diseases. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

I was in Belfast when the report on red and processed meats from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) was published. Did it stop me enjoying an Ulster fry? Not a chance.

First, the evidence was not new. Health professionals have known about the link between meat and cancer for at least 30 years. The agency’s review was just the first time scientists summarised the evidence from 800 studies into one paper. In fact, in 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO), in its report Diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic disease, advised people “to moderate consumption of preserved meat to reduce the risk of cancer”.

Secondly, most media coverage exaggerated, deliberately misrepresented, or misunderstood the risks. A 17-18 per cent increased risk (per 100g red meat or 50g processed meat daily respectively) translates into fewer than two extra people per 100,000 dying of colon cancer every year.

Vast quantities

The National Nutrition Survey of 2,693 Irish families, carried out between 1946 and 1948, found each person ate nearly 1kg of meat a week (three times the amount now recommended by experts), usually fried, and more than a third of it bacon, sausages and other processed meats. People ate little fish, consuming between 65g-100g a week depending on social class, and drank a pint of full-cream milk every day (we are now advised to drink the low-fat variety). On average, adults consumed 3,000 calories a day, well above current guidelines, yet few people were overweight or obese. Fewer than 2 per cent of children were overweight, and none were obese.

The meaty diet and fried food led to plenty of other health problems. Irish people were dying of cancer of the digestive system in large numbers during those years. Figures from the Central Statistics Office for 1948-1950, when the nutrition survey was carried out, show that the overall death rate per 100,000 citizens for these cancers was 76. By 2014 it was less than half of that. The death rate for cancer of the stomach/small intestine was 34; by 2014 it was a quarter of that. The rate for cancer of the large intestine/colon was 16; by 2014 the rate was 10.3. The reduced death rates are mainly due to early detection and improved cancer treatments. Cardiovascular diseases were also a huge problem in the 1940s, with death rates of 354 per 100,000. Last year’s rate was 190, a great public health success story.

Scare stories

A quarter of the population ignore negative messages altogether. Another quarter develop warning fatigue and are immune to the messages. Another quarter are so sensitised to scary messages they feel powerless: “Everything causes cancer, so why bother adopting a healthy lifestyle?” The final quarter deliberately defy expert advice, adopting a “No one tells me what to do” approach.

However, dismissing the findings of the report is not the healthiest option. Ignore most of the media coverage and read the report, which is measured and logical. Eating quality red meat up to three times a week is safe. Ditch fried foods that are listed by IARC as “probably carcinogenic”. Portion size is important, and it is better to eat 100g of lean meat than 200g of cheap, intensively produced product.

Furthermore, the world needs processed food. Without it, more people would starve to death. What we do not need are processed foods laden with fats, salt and sugar. Let’s have new public policies and legislation to ensure quality food is available to and affordable for everyone. I’m with the farmers on this one: enjoy Ireland’s great red meat. Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland council; drjackyjones@gmail.com

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