I hate to say I told you so, but…

  • Rant warning! Don’t health journalists think any more? 
  • Why this latest story about red meat and cancer is not really a story at all 
  • The real villain here…

I hate to say I told you so…

And this email isn’t to crow about it or show off about my genius health insights.

In fact, my insights were obvious – and this is why I’m so angry.

Anyway, let me explain…

On the 30th September you might have seen headlines in the health news which said something like this (this from the BBC online):

“A controversial study says cutting down on sausages, mince, steak and all other forms of red or processed meat is a waste of time for most people.”

The report said that the risk to people’s health of eating red meat was not as great as previously claimed.

In fact, if 1,000 people cut out three portions of red or processed meat every week for a lifetime, there would be only seven fewer deaths from cancer.

One of the researchers, professor Bradley Johnston, said, “We’re not saying there is no risk, we’re saying there is only low-certainty evidence of a very small reduction of cancer and other adverse health consequences of reducing red meat consumption.”

Many experts praised this assessment for being ‘rigorous’ – as in, all the statistics had been properly analysed.

The mainstream media were aghast at this ‘new revelation’ (which is nothing of the sort as I’ll explain in a moment).

Journos threw their arms up in despair at this suddenly conflicting information. The BBC said it went against everything we’d been told recently by most health organisations.

Because, you see…

It was as recently as April when The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer said that processed meats DO cause cancer.

In fact, they said that eating too much of it could raise your chances of bowel cancer by 20%.

The research showed that 40 people per 10,000 developed bowel cancer from eating the equivalent of a rasher of bacon a day.

But if you ate three rashers a day, said the report, the number rose to 48 per 10,000 – which is where the 20% increase came from…

So now the media was wondering how scientists could have gone from “MASSIVE CANCER RISK” to “TINY CANCER RISK”?

But the thing is, they didn’t!

There’s no contradiction the real figures were there all the time

I sometimes wonder if journalists bother to actually look at the figures or just go straight to the most ‘clickbaity’ headline.

Because the truth was there in plain sight in the first place.

Back in April amidst the hysteria of that WHO report, I suggested that the figures weren’t as scary as the headlines suggested.

“Hold on a minute,” I wrote, “forty people per 10,000 equates to 0.004% of those who were eating bacon. Doesn’t sound quite so bad now does it?”

In other words, the figures from the original report also showed that there was a tiny risk.

So nothing has really changed.

This new article is pretty much the statistics being shown from a different angle that’s all.

So can you and should you eat red meat?

Ethical objections aside, if you are a meat eater, clearly there is a risk in eating too much red or processed meat.

Just because that risk is small, don’t just go out and eat bacon to your heart’s content.

However, bear in mind that this advice is true of many foods, habits and lifestyle choices.

Think about balance…

Think about variety…

Think also about the quality of what you’re eating, for instance, where the bacon is from and what you’re eating with it – the amount of oil you use, as well as the vegetables and carbs you have with it.

Also bear in mind that there’s a difference between red meat like steak and processed meat like sausages.

You see, processed and cured meat contain trans fats. These are produced during ‘hydrogenation’, a manufacturing process where oils are changed from liquid to solid at high temperatures.

They can raise your levels of LDL cholesterol, also lower HDL cholesterol, increasing the risk of clogged arteries.

Of course, if you are a vegetarian, vegan or pescatarian carry on as you are by all means. Just make sure you look after your own balance of nutrition and get supplements to top yourself up if you need them.

If you’re cutting down on red meat, then carry on with that, too. It’s healthy to do so, the same as it’s healthy to avoid too many refined carbs and too many fats.

And there’s another final point to make…

Yet again, the media is causing more confusion for consumers

Scientists tend to be pretty rigorous in their analysis, but that sense of balance doesn’t translate into the media very well, as journalists like to frame these studies as a compelling story.

There are too popular ways to make an impactful story – one is appeal to fear and the other is to appeal to our hopes.

  • FEAR = “what you eat for dinner will kill you”
  • HOPE = “you can eat what you like, it’s all fine!”

The news tends to swing between these poles.

So people read their fear headlines about cancer risks and get panicky. Then they read other hopeful headlines denying those risks, or minimising those risks, only a few months later.

The public get confused. They assume the scientists are somehow all over the place.

But it’s simply a matter of interpretation…

In this case, the fundamental story was the same. There was no contradiction in terms of the facts and stats…

Just a contradiction in the way the media played it for clicks and sales.

Meanwhile, while we panic about meat, the undeniable causes of poor health, damaged cardiovascular systems and rising levels of metabolic diseases such as diabetes are SUGAR and REFINED CARBS.

Food companies have been using higher and higher levels of sugar in their products to hide poor quality ingredients and create the sort of dependency that you thought only came with class A drugs.

But no, the media will have a go at steak instead.

Anyway, hopefully this helps clear up some of the confusion!

Yours as ever,

Ray Collins