A comprehensive, authoritative, 517-page new study published this Wednesday by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research points to three major lifestyle factors contributing to a much greater danger of contracting cancer: obesity, alcohol and not least red meat, especially processed or cured meats.
The cancer risk from processed meats is now considered to be comparable to that from smoking as a long recognised risk for lung cancer.
Eating 50 grams of cured meat a day increases the risk of colorectal (bowel) cancer by 21%. Compare that to tobacco: smoking 20 cigarettes every day increases the risk of lung cancer 20 to 40 fold.
The study simply recommends to avoid all processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages, salami and similar meats. For them there is no safe level of consumption, says Martin Wiseman, project director of the report.
This report represents the most comprehensive review of the evidence on the subject, and is considered a landmark. It is the result of five years of work by nine teams of 21 scientists who are world experts on cancer, who reviewed 7,000 studies on diet, weight, exercise, and their links to cancer.
Several types of food carry a risk of tumour, but nothing is as dangerous as cured or processed meat, because the bad effect of red meat is enhanced by the curing process. Bacon, ham, sausages, salami are particularly harmful.
It’s nothing fundamentally new. In fact the conclusions of the study are in harmony with the dietary recommendations of the World Health Organization, medical bodies, health experts, governments health departments: eat lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and reduce or avoid red meats, dairy products and fats if you wish to protect yourself against heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
But it’s something that most people still do not know well enough.
The American Institute for Cancer Research also published a survey of 1,000 American adults showing that the majority do not understand these risks. 71 per cent of the people interviewed still incorrectly think that pesticides are a major cancer risk, whereas in fact they are not even remotely the biggest culprit, given the infinitesimal amount in which they are normally ingested by human consumers. There is no evidence that pesticides are a risk factor in cancer.
But the “nice” foods that the general population of the West has grown up believing to be good for them are actually the worst killers, comparable to tobacco.
Of the people polled in the survey, just 38 per cent was aware of the link between cured meats and cancer, and only 49 per cent knew that diets poor in fruits and vegetables increased the risk of cancer.
"Americans are increasingly likely to attribute cancer to factors over which they have no control, and for which no proven links to the disease exist," the survey concludes. "This reflects an 'everything causes cancer' mindset".
It’s easy to see why: it’s harder to take control over one’s life, and make difficult choices and changes. This despite the fact that lifestyle causes of cancer are actually good news, because they mean that we can influence our future at least to a certain extent.
"We need to think about cancer as the product of many long term influences, not as something that 'just happens,'" said Dr Walter Willett, a nutrition expert at the Harvard School of Public Health in Massachusetts.
Incidentally, the new study on nutrition advises to avoid dietary supplements, which could represent a problem for vegans.