Red meat (beef, pork, lamb) has been in the headlines recently, and not in a sympathetic light. Just this past month the World Health Organization declared cured and processed meat (like bacon, sausage, ham, etc.) as “group 1 carcinogenic”; that means that when it comes to causing cancer (colon cancer, specifically), these meats are now in the same category as tobacco, asbestos, alcohol, and arsenic, according to the WHO.
The WHO’s conclusion is disturbing, but not entirely unprecedented. Different people and different health organizations have been preaching against red meat for decades now, telling us not to eat it due to high fat content, high cholesterol content, or now, carcinogenic effects.
I want to take this newsletter to put to rest the idea that red meat is bad for you. To start, comparing bacon to cigarettes is absurd. Smoking raises a person’s risk of developing cancer by about twenty-fold; eating bacon doesn’t produce a risk anywhere near that. Even though the WHO placed red meat in the same category as cigarettes, asbestos, etc., not all substances in this group share the same level of hazard. In fact there have yet to be any studies conclusively showing that red meat is in any way bad for your health, let alone a carcinogen.
That’s because almost every study on red meat consumption is subject to a phenomenon called “healthy user bias.” Healthy user bias is when people who engage in one healthy behavior tend to engage in many other behaviors they perceive to be healthy. Likewise, people who engage in one unhealthy behavior often engage in many other unhealthy behaviors. For example, participants in most observational studies who eat red meat also have a tendency to smoke more, exercise less, and eat unhealthily in general. Most of these people, when they eat red meat, will eat it with a huge white bun and a load of fries cooked in refined oil! Because we can’t control for these other factors, we can’t conclude that red meat specifically is the culprit behind cancer presence; especially considering the fact that refined carbohydrates and oils may very well be the true carcinogens.
Ideally, we would be able to conduct experiments that could control for things like healthy user bias. But this is an impossible mission. Cancer often develops slowly from any number of things: environment, genetics, etc.. We could never control for every detail of a participant’s life over several decades. Thus we have to rely on mere observational studies, which often show a correlation but fail to establish causation. There is good evidence that what is taking place in these red meat studies is in fact correlation, and not causation, because we can’t single out red meat as the cause of cancer in these individuals, especially given that they tend to lead an unhealthy life style. In other words, people with cancer tend to eat more red meat, but if you eat red meat you aren’t more likely to get cancer.
Actually many studies have failed to show even mere correlation between red meat and cancer. For a positive correlation to be present, you would expect to see a linear relationship between red meat consumption and cancer rates—i.e. as a person’s red meat consumption increases, his/her risk of developing cancer increases just as much. But we don’t see this in many cases. In fact some studies result in a decrease in cancer rates in people who ate the most red meat.
Now, certain studies are offering a different explanation behind the increased cancer rates in red meat eaters. Because people who eat red meat tend to engage in many other unhealthy behaviors, they often develop a dysbiotic microbiome. The human microbiome is the vast community of baceria living in and on the human body. These microbes help us digest food, keep our immune systems healthy and much more; in fact, they are crucial to our health. A dysbiotic microbiome occurs when the trillions of microbes living in and on the human body (specifically in the gut), are compromised—often due to poor diet, alcoholism, etc. There is scientific evidence that people with unhealthy microbiomes tend to be at a greater risk for cancer, regardless of whether they eat red meat.
Likewise, someone who eats a lot of red meat but who has a very healthy microbiome is likely at a much lower risk of developing cancer. Red meat can even contribute to the health of the human microbiome when eaten responsibly. It’s rich in B vitamins, Vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, Iron and other minerals. Just be sure to buy it organic and grass-fed. If you skip the bun and starchy sides, red meat is good for us so long as, like everything else, we eat it in moderation.
As long as you’re doing other things right (exercising, eating vegetables, checking portion size, etc.), red meat does not pose a threat to your health. So don’t let the headlines scare you away from it. In reality, organic, grass-fed read meat is rich in nutrients and can help make us healthier when eaten in moderation.