By Tom Collins
HAMILTON — Go ahead and eat that steak and burger, and don’t worry about the health impacts because there aren’t any.
That’s the advice from a new international study that says there isn’t sufficient evidence that eating red and processed meats is bad for you. And that’s good news for Ontario beef farmers, said Craig McLaughlin, a Renfrew County beef farmer and cow-calf director with the Beef Farmers of Ontario.
“Anytime we get a study that counteracts bad studies of the past, it’s well taken,” McLaughlin said, adding that the beef farmers will incorporate this latest study into their marketing.
Fourteen researchers from seven countries conducted a meta-analysis study, a review of all studies, and found that most studies are too observational to be conclusive. The results were published online by the Annals of Internal Medicine, an academic medical journal published by the American College of Physicians, and one of the most influential specialty medical journals in the world.
One of the meta-analysis study authors, Gordon Guyatt, a professor of health research methods, evidence, and impact at Hamilton’s McMaster University, compared red meat observational studies to other observational studies that show people in a hospital die more often than people not in a hospital. And, of course, that’s true, because they are unwell and, therefore, more likely to die than a healthy person not in a hospital.
“If you were looking at it in a more naïve way, you would say ‘hospitals are very dangerous places. If you want to live longer, you better stay away from hospitals,’ ” he said.
In the same way, observational study researchers looked at rates of diseases and then looked to see if the same people also had higher rates of red meat in their diets. But those who eat more red meat would also likely have a difference in socio-economic status and, therefore, other differences in their diets, different exposure to toxins and so on, and it would be too difficult to point a finger at red meat, Guyatt said.
“It is uncertain that the associations between cancer and cardiovascular disease are actually caused by the red meat,” he told Farmers Forum.
Observational studies don’t provide enough data to make such sweeping conclusions as they look for correlations, not causations, he said.
The more science-based studies look for causation and the meta-analysis research found that those studies found that the actual increase for risk of cancers and heart diseases is much lower than the general population believes.
For example, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, said that processed meat is in the “definitely causes cancer” grouping, and that for every 50-gram portion of processed meat — about three to six slices of bacon — eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18 per cent. That sounds like a significant increase, but in reality, it isn’t. In the United States, a 50-year-old man (the average man eats 28 grams of processed meat per day) has a 0.68 per cent chance of getting colon cancer within 10 years. Eating an extra 50 grams of processed meat daily would increase that to a 0.8 per cent chance.
The 18 per cent increase in the chance of getting colon cancer makes for sexier headlines. However, an 18 per cent increase in a very small chance of getting cancer is a very, very small increase in getting cancer.
“Even if (a statistical study is) true, which it may not be, the magnitude of the effect is very small,” Guyatt said. “Unfortunately, it appears to be a use of statistics to scare people and to make them believe stuff that may not be true.”
After all, it would also be correct to write this headline: “Eat 2.5 times as much bacon as the average man and you likely won’t get cancer.”
Beef farmer McLaughlin agreed. “I know a lot of beef farmers who have consumed way too much beef as a product, but they seem to live a long time.”
He added that farmers are generally getting more exercise, more fresh air and are keeping their minds mentally alert. “Maybe it’s not our diet, maybe it’s what we do with our lives. If you’re a productive member of society and you keep active, that’s a key to longevity. There’s a lot more (to getting cancer and cardiovascular disease) than just eating meat.”
The latest meta-analysis research, however, is not popular among some doctors, heart and cancer associations or vegetarian groups. One U.S. physician group that advocates for a plant-based diet filed a petition against the study with the Federal Trade Commission, calling the research “fatally flawed.”
It’s safe to eat even more red meat: Study
By Tom Collins