“Eating Meat has Known Health Benefits” — WHO

Red Meat | The Paleo Diet
As you probably already heard, earlier this week the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer agency, categorized processed meat as “carcinogenic” and unprocessed red meat as “probably carcinogenic.”1 What you might not have heard is that in an accompanying Q&A document, the IARC also said, “Eating meat has known health benefits.”2

Those who read the IARC’s statement and its Q&A document are likely to conclude that this story is nowhere near as dramatic and consequential as headlines from The Guardian, The New York Times, and other news outlets have implied:

  • “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO” – The Guardian3

  • “Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk, W.H.O. Report Finds” – The New York Times4

Let’s see what the IARC actually said, then put things in context so we can determine what it means. The IARC evaluates chemicals, pollutants, biological agents, and other substances so as to determine whether or not they are carcinogenic. Agents are classified into one of several groups, ranging from “Group 1: the agent is carcinogenic to humans,” to “Group 4: the agent is probably not carcinogenic to humans.” The IARC does not determine how much any particular agent actually increases one’s risk of getting cancer. In its own words, the IARC explains,

“The classification indicates the weight of the evidence as to whether an agent is capable of causing cancer (technically called “hazard”), but it does not measure the likelihood that cancer will occur (technically called “risk”) as a result of exposure to the agent.”5

This is an essential point. Processed meats are now grouped into the same category as cigarettes and asbestos, but this doesn’t mean the risks associated with processed meats are anywhere near those of the latter two. Cigarette smoking, for example, increases one’s relative risk of getting lung cancer by 2,500%.6 Eating processed meat, according to the IARC, increases one’s risk of getting colorectal cancer by an estimated 18%.7 Given the frequency of colorectal cancer, this means that eating 50 grams of bacon every day over the course of your life would increase your risk of getting cancer from 5% to 6%.

Missing the Big Meaty Picture

Of course, all this talk of risk misses a bigger point – context is essential. For example, will those who smoke while eating healthy diets have the same chronic disease risks as those who smoke while eating unhealthy diets? Probably not. Red meat consumed within the context of a health-supportive Paleo diet is healthy. On the other hand, red meat consumed within the context of a junk-food diet might not be healthy, especially regarding poor-quality meat.

Dr. Cordain points out, “observational studies and even randomized controlled trials typically do not control for a variety of additional elements found in feedlot-raised red meats” and “only in the past 200 years of so have we ever consumed domesticated animals fed grains, injected with hormones, antibiotics, exposed to heavy metals and pesticides and sequestered in feedlots by the hundreds of thousands.” So when someone says meat is unhealthy, we should remember that meat is not a commodity; it ranges from poor to superior quality.

The Problem with Observational Studies

To assess carcinogenicity, the IARC analyzes observational studies. As Dr. Cordain and others have repeatedly pointed out, such studies alone cannot demonstrate causality. In response to the IARC announcement, Dr. Cordain noted, “In order to establish cause and effect between diet and disease, it takes more than just observational epidemiological evidence. There must also be what is referred to as ‘biological plausibility’ in which evidence gathered from tissue, animal and short-term human metabolic studies support causality.”8, 9

With respect to unprocessed red meat, the IARC’s “probably carcinogenic” determination is not even based on strong epidemiological evidence. It’s based on “limited evidence,” which according to the IARC, “means that a positive association has been observed between exposure to the agent and cancer but that other explanations for the observations (technically termed chance, bias, or confounding) could not be ruled out.”10

So the next time your vegetarian co-worker tells you that red meat causes cancer, remember the following four rebuttals:

  1. The IARC’s classification is based on observational studies, which cannot show causality.
  2. Evidence that unprocessed red meat could be carcinogenic is based on “limited evidence,” which means confounding factors could not be ruled out.
  3. The magnitude of risk for eating processed meat (and red meat if causality could be demonstrated) is nowhere near that of established risky behaviors, like smoking.
  4. Context matters – high-quality meat is healthy within the context of healthy diets, which include plenty of vegetables and other healthy foods.

Despite all the fanfare about increased cancer risk, at least the IARC acknowledges, “Eating meat has known health benefits.” It wouldn’t have been sensational, but this should have been the headline used by major news organizations.

References

1. World Health Organization, IARC. (October 26, 2015). IARC Monographs evaluate consumption of red meat and processed meat. Press Release Number 240. Retrieved from http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2015/pdfs/pr240_E.pdf

2. World Health Organization, IARC. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A_Vol114.pdf

3. Boseley, S. (October 26, 2015). Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/oct/26/bacon-ham-sausages-processed-meats-cancer-risk-smoking-says-who

4. O’Connor, A. (October 26, 2015). Meat Is Linked to Higher Cancer Risk, W.H.O. Report Finds. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/27/health/report-links-some-types-of-cancer-with-processed-or-red-meat.html

5. World Health Organization, IARC. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A_Vol114.pdf

6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2014). The Health Consequences of Smoking—50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2014.

7. World Health Organization, IARC. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A_Vol114.pdf

8. Flegal KM. (June 1999). Evaluating epidemiologic evidence of the effects of food and nutrient exposures. Am J Clin Nutr, 69(6):1339S-1344S.

9. Potischman N, Weed DL. (June 1999). Causal criteria in nutritional epidemiology. Am J Clin Nutr, 69(6):1309S-1314S.

10. World Health Organization, IARC. Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from http://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/iarcnews/pdf/Monographs-Q&A_Vol114.pdf

About Christopher James Clark, B.B.A.

Christopher James Clark, B.B.A.Christopher James Clark, B.B.A. is an award-winning writer, consultant, and chef with specialized knowledge in nutritional science and healing cuisine. He has a Business Administration degree from the University of Michigan and formerly worked as a revenue management analyst for a Fortune 100 company. For the past decade-plus, he has been designing menus, recipes, and food concepts for restaurants and spas, coaching private clients, teaching cooking workshops worldwide, and managing the kitchen for a renowned Greek yoga resort. Clark is the author of the critically acclaimed, award-winning book, Nutritional Grail.

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“12” Comments

  1. Great Article, Thanks For Sharing
    Here, are few more health benefits of eating meat!
    Assembles Muscle
    All creature based sustenance’s including meat are finished protein sources and help construct slender bulk. Meat gives the greater part of the about two dozen distinct sorts of amino acids your body requires regularly. Amino acids stack on top of each other, making the basic part of muscles.
    Manages Iron Levels
    You require sufficient iron in your eating regimen to enhance oxygen conveyance to cells, tissues and key organs. Meat is rich in iron, especially heme press, which has high bioavailability. This iron is not the same as nonheme iron in spinach and other iron-rich plant sustenance’s that is troublesome for your body to assimilate.
    Makes New Red Blood Cells
    Meat is rich in vitamin B-12, a critical supplement in red platelet arrangement. When you don’t have enough B-12 in your framework, red platelets don’t shape legitimately, a condition known as megaloblastic paleness
    Fat Concerns
    You require fat in your eating regimen for fat-solvent vitamin ingestion, padding organs and hormone creation, yet not all fats are beneficial for you. Meat is high in soaked fat, a destructive fat that expands your danger of coronary illness by swelling related hazard variables, similar to cholesterol and pulse.

    https://www.lemeats.com/

  2. So, this thing about meat is really confusing. A couple of years ago I watched a film calle Forks over Knives, in which a couple of specialists examine the relation between afflictions like cancer and the eating of animal products, such as milk, eggs, and meat. I’d really like to know your opinion about this documentary. Greetings.

      • yes, almost all humans have consumed meat. And not all people die from diseases caused from meat. But that is only if they are lucky. Just like some people dont die from smoking cigarettes, because they are lucky. Also, you cant compare meat and plant foods in the same portions. ofcourse meat will have more nutrients and calories than the same portion of plants. thats why you need to eat an abundance of plant foods (mainly carbs) in order to eat enough calories in one day and have all the needed nutrients. It is proven that a plant based diet (if followed correctly) can significantly lower risks of our leading diseases, where as meat only accelerates the speed of the diseases. Why increase your risk of disease when you can slow it down, treat, or even prevent

  3. “Eating meat has known health benefits.” – “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes”. In my opinion is the meat, that WHO and IARC refer to in those claims, the same. It’s difficult to find and buy non-processed food in this fastfood-society. Can you imagine how much of the food in your fridge is processed? Most of the meat is processed, but you’re not always aware of it! So is meat healthy or is it as bad as smoking??

    • Animal food products have the most bio-available nutrients when compared proportionately to most plant foods. Additionally, the fats inherently found in animal products assist in enhanced nutrient absorption in the gut. That being said, we agree that processed meats should be avoided entirely or consumed only occasionally. Processed meats are typically high in salt, preservatives, and other ingredients that are certainly not “Paleo.” Additionally, our Hunter-gatherer ancestors would have not had access to the commercially available processed meats seen on store shelves today. We recommend that Paleo followers should mainly focus on consuming pasture-raised/free-range animal products that are free of antibiotics and hormones, in order to achieve optimum health. The benefits of meat consumption are typically associated with free-range animal products because of the higher proportion of omega-3s and other nutrients found in such foods.

      • can someone maybe avoid meat altogether and get their protein and omega-3’s from other sources, cause it seems to me that your ancestors didn’t have access to any of the meats we have available in the supermarket, they are all neolithic except for maybe horse or dog, so it would be safe to say that it is best to avoid them wouldn’t you say? not to mention the fact that they increase your cancer risk, would be interested in exploring this idea, thanks.

        • Meat consumption is advocated on The Paleo Diet. That being said, we advocate avoiding processed meats and focusing on consuming pasture raised animal products instead of conventional meat products. We recommend that you contact your local grass-fed rancher to source quality beef products. Good luck!

  4. In that Q&A when they say “meat has known health benefits,” they didn’t really explain further or give any examples. I don’t think they’re talking about red meat either because right after that they say to limit red and processed meat again. Can you tell me what the known health benefits are? I know it’s high in zinc and iron but how does that translate in the real world? Any studies? Also this line

    “will those who smoke while eating healthy diets have the same chronic disease risks as those who smoke while eating unhealthy diets? Probably not. Red meat consumed within the context of a health-supportive Paleo diet is healthy. On the other hand, red meat consumed within the context of a junk-food diet might not be healthy”

    That doesn’t sound very reassuring to me. I would avoid smoking even while eating a healthy diet. Wouldn’t it be similarly wise to avoid red meat while eating a healthy diet? And while we’re on the subject, I have to bring up that a Paleo diet plan isn’t what organizations like the WHO would consider a health-supportive diet; they advocate a lot of whole grains and legumes. Even if we wanted to say that red meat is only unhealthy in the context of an already healthy diet (shouldn’t it IMPROVE the diet and make it better if it has known health benefits?), the healthy diet agreed upon by these organizations is based on whole grain foods. Here’s their diet recommendations: http://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/diet/en/

    • Hey Colby, you bring up some really interesting points that I would also like answered.

      The only one I can really address would be the final one, “even if we wanted to say that red meat is only unhealthy in the context of an already healthy diet, the healthy diet agreed upon by these organizations is based on whole grain foods”

      I would say, given that we know whole grains aren’t as healthy as animal fats, this is redundant. I understand what you’re saying, but this just further questions the integrity of the WHO’s findings on anything……we know a high carb diet isn’t healthy, yet even THEY recommend it.

  5. It’s been a while since I lost my good faith, and evidence around us toward someone’s good at the expense of the community strongly support this idea. If they were in good faith and wanted to investigate in good faith, why they never mention grains. Here we have our drawers full and we are very close to causation, but nobody or at least very few want to open them going on with the red meat crap. Why?

  6. Thanks for the article. I would imagine that the quality of the meat and eating it with a lot of fiber(fruit and vegetables),would play an important role when consuming red meat.

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