The red card for red meat?
The red card for red meat?As National Vegetarian Week begins, a new study shows links between eating processed and red meat and an increased risk of bowel cancer. Will you still be bringing home the bacon?
In my fridge right now is: one pack streaky bacon, one pack pre-sliced chorizo, one pack mini chorizo sausages (half eaten), one pack Wiltshire cure ham. Hanging up near the fridge is a length of Iberico chorizo (the really good stuff) picked up on a recent trip to Spain. Naturally my freezer is also well-stocked: sausages, steaks, pork belly, beef mince, lamb fillet and so on. The question is, in light of today’s report on the relationship between the consumption of red and processed meat and bowel cancer, should I be chucking it all out?
Let’s be clear: getting me to part with bits of salted, preserved, paprika-spiked piggy is a little like asking a toddler to give up a favourite soft toy. Then again, the statistics are pretty sobering. A number of comments on the original news report complain about a lack of hard figures so here they are, taken from the press release on the World Cancer Research Fund website: the consumption of an extra 100g of cooked red meat a day above the recommended 500g of cooked red meat a week leads to a 17% increase in the risk of bowel cancer, that’s roughly from five in 100 to six. An extra 100g of processed meat a day results in a rise in the risk of bowel cancers of 36%; roughly five in 100 to seven.
There are a bunch of things to be said about this, not least that this extra 100g a day amounts to more than a doubling of the recommended amount of 70g. If I’ve got my sums right it means 170g of cooked red meat a day, which is 1190g or over 2.5lbs of red meat a week. Even I think that’s an awful lot. Add in a similar amount of processed meats – bacon, sausages, salamis and hams – and it’s a dead animal fiesta. It’s the kind of thing I muse on at night to help me get to sleep; a fantasy I would never (or almost never) try to realise in real life.
But using that as a reason to dismiss the stats would be a false comfort. There is clearly a correlation between meat consumption and bowel cancer. So, putting aside the other serious issues – the environmental impact of meat production, the unreliability of animal welfare – is it time we (by which I mean I) changed my diet?
Let’s be clear. It’s always time I changed my diet. And I know full well that the western dietary imperative that places meat protein at the centre of meals deserves to be challenged. We should eat more vegetables. But I do scratch my head when it comes to the health implications, not because I don’t get the argument, but because the very business of living is terminal.
As a younger man I smoked, quite a lot actually. I was rather good at it. I still smoke three or four fags a month. Although I packed it in early, I did my fair share of recreational narcotics. I tell my doctor I drink 27 units of alcohol a week. Some weeks this is true. Some weeks it isn’t. I am overweight, albeit not quite as overweight as I once was. Given my job my diet is substantial. There’s so much of my diet that as well as all the dead cow, it also includes a lot of fibre, green vegetables and so on. And, for what it’s worth, I have a bit of gym habit. I get there four to six times a week. Somebody described me recently on twitter as looking like “a waxed Wookie on the cross-trainer, giving it stacks.” I wear a headband. I’m not proud.
And so I am left bewildered. Which bits of this lifestyle of mine will kill me and which bits of it will save my life? Surely no single piece of dietary advice can be taken in isolation? Because if you listened to each and every bit of advice on healthy living you would quickly assume we were eating our way to an early grave. And yet that’s not true. For here is another statistic, one which rarely referred to. Our life expectancy is going up, not down.
According to the Office for National Statistics the age at which we will die has risen from around 71 for men and 76 for women in 1980, to nearly 78 for men and 82 for women now. Of course that may mean we end up living with illness and infirmity for longer but the bald fact is this: modern life isn’t killing us. It’s helping us to live on.
So does that mean I can keep frying up the bacon? I’m really not sure. It is very very hard to take these issues seriously when you are well. If you have developed bowel cancer, or have lost a loved one to it – 36,000 Britons develop the disease every year and over 16,000 die from it – then making a decision is probably much easier. For the rest of us it’s not so cut and dried.
I will, of course, try to be a better person. I will try to eat a more balanced diet. Then again I am always trying to do this, and that’s not the same as succeeding. So what are you going to do? Cut out the pig or carry on as usual?