We’ve been hearing all about how we need to decrease our consumption of meat, or else we’re going to get cancer! They say that just eating 50 grams more of bacon raises bowel cancer risk by 20%. That sounds like a big deal, 20%. But what does that 20% actually mean? Does it mean that your risk goes from 1% to 21% just be eating bacon? Does it mean that, if you eat 5 pieces of bacon, your risk goes up to 100%?? Not at all. In fact, it means something far less significant, to the point of being meaningless. Let’s look at the study itself to see what I mean.
The big nasty 20% increased risk that people are clamoring about comes from a recent epidemiological study that observed nearly 500,000 people in the UK over nearly 6 years. They assessed what the people ate using food questionnaires, put them into groups based on estimated intake, and then compared the groups’ incidence of bowel cancer. In simplified terms provided by CancerResearchUK.org, they found the following: 40 out of 10,000 people who ate 21g/day of meat or less got bowel cancer, while 48 out of 10,000 people who at 76g/day of meat or more got bowel cancer.
True to their word, 48 is 20% higher than 40. But that’s just relative risk, which means little without knowing the absolute risk. When you look at the absolute risk, the raw difference in percentage, it is shown to be entirely insignificant. 40 out of 10,000 is 0.4%. 48 out of 10,000 is 0.48%. That means that the risk of bowel cancer increased by just 0.08%! That “increase” is not even a tenth of a single percentage, yet this is the kind of data that is supposed to justify not eating meat. Even without considering the many flaws in epidemiology that render these studies largely worthless, it’s obvious to see how tiny a difference that is.
When we think of risk, we are always thinking in terms of absolute risk, not relative risk. That’s why an increase of 20% seems so scary. Yet the absolute risk from this study isn’t 20%, but merely 0.08%. Imagine if the media were being honest here, and the headlines had said “Eating more bacon is linked to a 0.08% increase in bowel cancer”. Would you stop scrolling for even a second? Most people, upon seeing such a headline, would dismiss it as saying basically nothing. They’d be right to do so, as it is essentially meaningless.
Instead, they drum up fear using relative risk, while knowing that people see things as absolute risk. They say 20% increased risk, when really they mean 0.08% increased risk, in order to dupe us into not eating meat. They’re being factually accurate while effectively lying. And this is the case for just about all of the science trying to justify lowering meat consumption; weak correlations blown up with big percentages that trick people into seeing a high risk where there isn’t one. To put it bluntly, we’ve been had.
Don’t let the hype trick you, and don’t worry so much about eating bacon! Not only does meat have zero carbs, but it is filled to the brim with essential nutrients that are important for good health. Yes, even bacon is dense in nutrients! Given how insignificant the risk for cancer actually is from eating meat, I’d say the reward of a satisfying meal and a great deal of nutrients makes eating more meat quite a worthy gamble.
Ultra-processed meat like hot dogs can have extra ingredients and I do not advocate eating them. On the other hand, whole red meat is amazingly healthy. So fry that bacon, grill that steak, chomp into some delicious meat and feel good about it! It tastes amazing, it’s amazing for you, and your actual risk of cancer won’t even go up by 0.1% when you eat it. Dig in!