By Matthew Hudson

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently published a report saying that eating processed or red meat could increase one’s risk of cancer.

The WHO report mentioned multiple things that could cause a tumour, including asbestos, alcohol and cigarettes. To clarify, consuming these goods does not mean you will definitely get a tumour and getting a tumour does not mean you have consumed these goods in excess. One girl I know was diagnosed with a brain tumour aged 15. She did not drink alcohol or smoke. She ate and drank the same as her older brother who has not been diagnosed with a tumour. This demonstrates that tumours can come about for a number of reasons including, but not exclusively, eating processed or red meat, smoking or drinking alcohol.

According to the BBC, 21% of bowel cancers are caused by processed meat; however this number looks tiny against the fact that 86% of lung cancers are caused by tobacco. Tobacco is responsible for 19% of all cancers whereas red meat and processed meat, combined, are only responsible for 3% of all cancers. This highlights the extent to which eating processed meat does not affect the likelihood of someone developing cancer.

Meat is a valuable source of protein as well as a good source of fat, which can later be broken down into energy. WHO’s results should not lead to you being afraid to eat meat, but depending on your daily intake it may still be sensible to reduce your daily intake. At the end of the day, focus on ensuring your diet is balanced as that is the best way to ensure good health. If you are unsure what constitutes a balanced diet then refer to the Eatwell Plate, which outlines how much of the different food types you should eat per day.

One thing to make clear at this point is that there is a difference between tumours and cancers. All cancers are tumours but not all tumours are cancers. With brain tumours, for example, there are 4 different grades of tumour: Grade I, Grade II, Grade III, and Grade IV. Only Grade III and Grade IV are cancerous but over time Grade I and Grade II are likely to turn cancerous. The process of the tumour changing a grade can take over ten years depending on the type of tumour. The Brain Tumour Charity claims there are over 140 different types of brain tumour and they all have different prognoses. This means it is possible to get a tumour, say from your diet, without getting cancer, showing that the BBC statistics do not show the full story when it comes to whether processed and/or red meat causes tumours. WHO also drew reference to the fact that asbestos can cause cancer. However, it is important to note that there are different types of asbestos. Some types of asbestos can take 40 years to kill you. Also, as asbestos is known to be damaging to human health, you are unlikely to be exposed to it during your everyday life so you should not be worried about asbestos poisoning.

Claiming certain products give you tumours is likely to damage the popularity of the product. The whole point of having the phrase “Smoking Kills” on a cigarette packet is to dissuade people from buying it. Claims about certain foods and drinks causing tumours are thus likely to be damaging for business.

Shalene McNeill, executive director of nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association makes the point that “billions of dollars have been spent on studies all over the world and no single food has ever been proven to cause or cure cancer.” According to Robert Pickard, a member of the Meat Advisory Panel and professor of neurobiology at Cardiff University, “the top priorities for cancer prevention remain smoking cessation, maintenance of normal body weight and avoidance of high alcohol intakes.” This demonstrates the view that the meat lobby has towards the WHO’s report.

The bottom line is that eating processed and/or red meat may increase your likelihood of getting a tumour. However, the effect it has on the probability of getting a tumour is limited. You should not be worried about eating processed and/or red meat and should be aware it has both positive and negative implications for your health so a balance is essential. You should also be aware that smoking, drinking alcohol, and exposure to asbestos could also give you a tumour. You should try to drink sensibly and not consume more than 21 units per week.

Generally you should just be aware of the health implications of what you expose your body to.