Robert O’Connor: WHO is not saying don’t eat meat

If you eat meat regularly you should be aware that there is a small risk that it could lead to you getting a cancer at some stage later in your life

Do sausages cause cancer? - No they don’t.

Do sausages cause cancer? - No they don’t.

 

On Monday the World Health Organisation announced the findings of a recent meeting of 22 recognised world experts tasked with reviewing available evidence on possible associations between meat and cancer risk .

They had two fairly simple conclusions.

First: on the available evidence there is an association between higher rates of meat consumption and higher incidences of certain forms of cancer. The experts did not feel the evidence was strong enough to say eating meat caused cancer, so they classified it as a “probable” group 2A carcinogen.

Second: with processed meats (sausages, rashers, ham,hot dogs) they felt the available evidence, along with some laboratory data, was sufficiently strong to propose a causal link between processed meats (those that contain preservatives to extend their useful shelf life) and cancer. They therefore classified them in the class 1 group of agents known to cause cancer.

This has caused clear concern among the general public, with people fearing they will get cancer from eating meat and processed meats. Let me try to address these concerns with answers to a few simple questions.

What has happened?

A group of experts has met, reviewed dozens of research studies and used that evidence to make statements about the links between meat and cancer. The research itself is not new but these experts have looked at what these studies are telling us when we bring them all together.

What does it mean?

The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is simply giving additional knowledge to the general public so members of the public can make lifestyle decisions that have an impact on their health. They are not saying don’t eat meat or hot dogs, they are saying that if you do this regularly you should be aware there is a small risk it could lead to you getting a cancer at some stage later in your life.

 

Human beings need protein and can easily get that from meat. So a small amount of meat contributes to a typical healthy, balanced diet. The problem is the western diet often contains much more meat than a human needs for health and some of that meat is processed and has additional chemicals which make the risk a little worse for the average person. It is up to the individual consumer to make that choice as to how much meat he or she chooses to eat.

This is part of general health guidance as to the actions one can take to reduce the likelihood of getting a disease such as cancer. It is one of 12 lifestyle aspects we can change to reduce the likelihood of getting cancer. You can find more information at cancer.ie/europeancode.

There are many diseases and illnesses that can arise in our body and cause us harm or kill us – cancer, diabetes, stroke, etc. Why someone gets one of these diseases is down in part to their genes and in part to their lifestyle, as well as the things they eat and the actions they take. In other words, some of the risk of getting a disease such as cancer is under our control.

Cancer is a collection of many different diseases with different causes. If we take all of these together we know that 40 per cent of cancer cases could be prevented by making lifestyle changes from an early age. To give a stark example, if no one smoked, one in five of all cases of cancer would not happen.

So we can choose to take advice as we wish but the IARC information gives us an unbiased view. The guidance could as easily say that if you eat processed meats regularly and for a prolonged period of your life we now have evidence you slightly raise your risk of some forms of cancer.

What should one do about this?

The consumer needs to be informed about the risks associated with lifestyle choices, including dietary habits. Everything we do in life has risks. Should you stop eating meat? That is an option but it is probably an overreaction for most people. The average person would be best advised to take a look at their whole lifestyle and look at what they can do to reduce risk and stack their odds in favour of better health.

This is particularly effective if done at a young age. It would be a good idea to not eat processed meat every day, maybe cut back on the quantity and frequency, and this may give a small benefit in reducing your risk.

However, if you want to stack the odds even more in favour of lifelong good health, you should do the following:

Never smoke.

Control your weight.

Maintain a healthy diet, with plenty of vegetables, some fruit and not too much sugar or too many calories.

Exercise for at least a few minutes every day

Moderate the amount of alcohol that you consume.

And relax.

So: do sausages cause cancer? No, they don’t. The occasional consumption of meat and meat products has little impact on day-to-day health but you should be aware that if you eat a lot of these foods regularly and over much of your life then you slightly but measurably increase your risk of getting some forms of cancer.

Think of it like driving and car crashes. The more you drive, the more likely you are to have a crash; and some crashes can be fatal. We live our lives and try to avoid disease, just like we try to avoid crashing. Crashes can happen for reasons outside our control but sometimes they happen for reasons within our control.

So we service the car, we control our speed, we don’t use mobile phones, etc, and we are less likely to crash. Similarly some people develop cancer; but adopting the lifestyle changes in the 12-step European Code Against Cancer can help reduce the risk of getting cancer (and other diseases).

It is up to us to decide what we do to reduce that risk but now we have the information to guide that choice.

Visit cancer.ie for more information.

Dr Robert O’Connor is head of research at the Irish Cancer Society

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