Cancerous Meat: Logic vs. Norm

A few days ago, the World Health Organization (WHO), via the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), announced that processed meat is linked to colorectal cancer, and probably red meat too. The press release states:

“The experts concluded that each 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18%.”

Yes, you read that correctly, 18%. We’ll come back to this.

Needless to say, this caused an uproar in social media circles. The Huffington Post published an article stating the WHO had clarified that people need not give up meat, but it would make sense to reduce consumption. The New York Times ran a piece on how it was important to get screened for colorectal cancer, but that association is not causation, so it’s ok to eat bacon.

If anyone has read The China Study, which lays out thousands of associations between meat and dairy products one the one hand and cancer, diabetes, and other diseases on the other, it’s difficult to turn away and say “Oh that’s not causation, it’s only association.”

This is a question of risk management. And we humans are usually pretty smart about it. I’ll leave you with what Steve Schneider, the late climatologist and my esteemed mentor, used to ask during an invited talk (I’m paraphrasing), and the response he would always get:

 

Steve: How many of you have had a fire in your home? 

(Maybe 1 or 2 hands go up in the audience)

Steve: Ok, let’s say 2%. How many of you have fire insurance?

(Almost all hands go up)

Steve: This is what risk management is about: being prepared for the likelihood of an event. We already do this, as you have just seen. We can apply the same logic to being prepared for climate change-induced events. 

 

So, for all of us who have fire insurance but won’t give up bacon, remember that the likelihood of a fire might be 2%, but the DAILY increased risk of cancer with every 500 grams of meat eaten is 18%. I doubt you would want your children eating bacon and other processed and red meats, given that kind of risk…and if so, why eat it yourself?

Giving up processed and red meats is also one of the most important actions you can take to address climate change, water shortages, deforestation, and famine. The time to be smart and choose logic (giving up meat) over a potentially dangerous norm (eating meat), is now. That behavior change is seconds away!

 

For those who have a hard time giving up bacon even though it is associated with colorectal cancer, they can substitute it for tempeh bacon, one of the healthier alternatives out there.

For those who have a hard time giving up bacon even though it is associated with colorectal cancer, they can substitute it for tempeh bacon, one of the healthier alternatives out there.

 

2 comments

  • Social media plays an important role in the proliferation of health related information, including this latest research by WHO. It plays a role in both causing an uproar (WHO press release) and also in diluting the message and pacifying the masses (Huffington Post).
    A related question: what brings a health news item to public attention, and how can the interest be sustained to make a significant impact on societal behavior?

    • Marilyn Cornelius

      Thank you for your comments Farzana! And what a powerful question…I can only begin to answer it – some person(s) decide that an item is “newsworthy” and then it it published. Whether it changes behavior depends on many interrelated factors in the social and physical environment of a person, as well as their beliefs and thoughts, and their current behavior.

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