A reader sent me a link to an article about a rise in bowel cancer over the past 35 years.  Let’s take a look:

Bowel cancer rates among men have soared by more than a quarter in the last 35 years, new figures have shown.

In contrast, women have experienced a rise of only 6 per cent, according to the report from Cancer Research UK.

Increasing rates of bowel cancer may be linked to obesity and diets high in red and processed meat and low in fibre.

You just knew as soon as you read that first paragraph that red meat would get the blame, didn’t you?  I believe the reporter’s thinking process (if you can call it that) went something like this:

Hmmm, bowel cancer is on the rise.  Well, we all know red meat causes bowel cancer, so it must be diets high in red meat that are the problem.  Okay, off to write the story.

In the internet/search engine age, it takes perhaps two minutes to find out if people have been eating more red meat over the past 35 years.  Here are some graphs based on USDA data.  (Yes, the article is from the U.K., but I sincerely doubt food-consumption trends in the U.S. and U.K. are wildly different.)

Looks to me as if red meat consumption has gone down.  We’ve been eating less cow meat since the mid-1970s – hey, that would be about 35 years ago, wouldn’t it?  Pork consumption is about the same, but chicken consumption is way up.  Perhaps we should blame the rise in bowel cancer on chicken.

But wait … I can think of another explanation.  In a post last week, I linked to several studies suggesting that sugar feeds cancer.  So let’s take a look at sugar consumption:

Red meat consumption has been dropping since the mid-1970s, but sugar consumption has gone up.

Is this proof that sugar is driving the rise in bowel cancer?  Nope.  Correlation does not prove causation.  But when you have a negative correlation, it’s pretty strong evidence that there’s no causation.  In other words, if I propose that drinking coffee causes obesity but then gather data showing that obesity has gone up while coffee consumption has gone down, I’d have to conclude that it’s extremely unlikely coffee causes obesity.

Suggesting red meat is causing the rise in bowel cancer was just a knee-jerk reaction by the reporter.  It’s an opinion based on “everybody knows” evidence.  He could have fact-checked that opinion without ever leaving his desk, and in less time than it took me to type this paragraph – but he didn’t.  Sadly, this kind of intellectual laziness seems to run rampant among media health reporters.

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32 Responses to “Red Meat Gets The Blame Again”
  1. SB says:

    “But when you have a negative correlation, it’s pretty strong evidence that there’s no causation.”
    Lack of correlation implies no causation. Negative correlation does not rule out causation. You could have said that rate of bowel cancer has been increasing since people are eating less red meat.

    Lack of red meat causes cancer … now there’s a headline.

  2. Walter Bushell says:

    Could it be the turkey? Omega 6 fatty acids which because they are unstable are subject to glycation and fructation, more than mono saturated or saturated fats.

    see:
    http://perfecthealthdiet.com/2013/01/chicken-why-art-thou-so-mediocre/

    Interesting hypothesis.

  3. js290 says:

    Stenographer, not reporter.

  4. Marilyn says:

    Barry Groves has suggested that bran — healthywholegrains — might contribute to the development of bowel cancer. That idea makes a whole lot more sense to me than red meat.

  5. Please stop making sense. How can we treat you seriously as a comedian if you keep making sense. :)

    Well, I like to think a comedian’s job is to point out what doesn’t make sense.

  6. egocyte says:

    I don’t know for the UK, but it’s about the same in France…
    According to the French agriculture ministry:
    http://agriculture.gouv.fr/Presentation-generale-du-secteur,18527
    According to the French agronomic research institute:
    http://www7.inra.fr/dpenv/images/conso.jpg
    I guess I should stop eating poultry and eat more beef…

    Seems to be the same trend in the U.S., U.K. and France.

  7. Chris Bennett says:

    Sugar was the first thing I cut out in my quest for better health and is probably the one biggest change most people could make to their diets.
    The graph on sugar consumption is very powerful even though I have seen it before. I wonder how many cancers show a similar upward trend. I remember Gary Taubes mentioning in the diet delusion that the five countries with the highest sugar consumtion were the same five countries with the highest incidence of one type of cancer(cannot remember which one from memory).
    I now find it strange how you get odd looks if you say red meat and saturated fat are good for you but people think there is nothing wrong with sugar. Which is more natural? It is crazy to have the attitude that a little bit of sugar will not harm. Even more crazy because sugar is in everything processed even savoury foods.

    Just proves that if a lie is repeated often enough, it becomes accepted as truth.

  8. Bruce says:

    So, if I cook my steak well done, so that it is no longer red, but black and brown…is it like an anti-cancer food?

    Well, if that steak replaces a plate of pasta, I’d consider it anti-cancer food no matter how you cook it.

  9. Ron Woolfenden says:

    Aaaargh! The jerk put it as a subtitle, mentioned it again in the article, but never showed the reference! You are absolutely right, the author simply made the red meat part up! It’s time we started banging THEIR heads on THEIR desks :). Keep the spectacular work, Tom. You are getting through to more folks than you know.

    Bang their heads on their desks … now that would be a sweet change.

  10. Makro says:

    Here is the UK data:

    http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/foodfarm/food/familyfood/datasets/

    Total carcase meat:

    1974: 393 g / person / week
    2011: 204 g

    Beef and veal consumption:

    1974: 189 g / person / week
    2011: 112 g

    Saturated fat:

    1974: 52 g / person / week
    2011: 31 g

    Clearly rising rates of obesity and cancer show that we must redouble our efforts to reduce the consumption of meat and saturated fat!

    And that’s exactly how they’ll interpret it.

  11. Walter Bushell says:

    As for the poultry an alarming percentage of the chicken is fried in rancid seed oils[1] and turkey is frequently sold as processed imitation pork.

    If you’re deep frying in seed oils how can they not be rancid and that probably accounts for the smell of fast food restaurants.

  12. Lori says:

    “Bowel cancer rates among men have soared by more than a quarter in the last 35 years, new figures have shown.

    In contrast, women have experienced a rise of only 6 per cent, according to the report from Cancer Research UK.”

    I blame video games.

    That makes more sense than blaming red meat.

  13. John R. says:

    How very pavlovian. I’m with Ron W., the good doctors talked about diagnosis, treatment, survival rates and the need for research. The reporter threw red meat at the problem as if a bell had been rung.

  14. Josh says:

    I wonder how much of the meat we eat today is processed? Back in 1977, there were more butcher shops. Nowadays, more people get their meat from the grocery store in a plastic container, a can, or even in a box. Those tend to be pumped full of, well… other non-meat, non-food stuff.

    That’s why I’m pleased to see more people demanding pasture-fed meats. Producers respond to consumer demand.

  15. Vincent says:

    Hey Tom, I love your blog and I read it everyday. If you have time, I was wondering if you can share your thoughts on this video put out by Ted Talks.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMOjVYgYaG8

    It shows a woman named Christina Warinner where she tries to debunk and challenge some of the commonly held beliefs about the Paleo diet. She does make sense to some degree, but I want to see what you have to say, since you are very knowledgeable about the Paleo diet and have benefited greatly from it.

    Interesting … she starts out apparently disputing the idea of paleo diets, but by the end she’s giving advice that people like Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf would enthusiastically support: eat whole foods, eat a variety of foods, avoid sugar, etc.

    Some bits I would disagree with:

    Humans aren’t natural meat-eaters because we don’t have fangs? We don’t need fangs because we have hands capable of weilding weapons. Needless features drop away over time.

    Humans are adapted to milk but not meat? Seriously? How many native peoples hunted animals (nearly all of them) and how many native people ran down animals and then milked them?

    She says paleo hunters hunted lean animals (true) but then notes that they consumed the organs and marrow — that’s how they got more fat into their diets. So yes, they ate a meaty, fatty diet.

    No, we don’t die without consuming vitamin C from plants. Gary Taubes discussed that at length in Good Calories, Bad Calories.

    The fact that some people in some parts of the world ate corn or barley 30,000 years ago doesn’t prove that those foods are good for us and isn’t relevant to what we ate 100,000 years ago or 200,000 years ago.

    I agree with her that both the plants and animals we consume today aren’t what was available back in paleo times, but no one is claiming they are.

  16. Tony Dickson says:

    Well, I can’t find any green or blue meat, so I’ll have to stick with the red meat.

    I found some blue-green meat in a plastic container at the back of our refrigerator once, but I elected not to eat it.

  17. Ash Simmonds says:

    As to the lack of red meat causing cancer thing – I noted this last year: http://aussieexotics.com/forum/off-topic/meat-is-bad-good-for-you-3472.msg184223.html#msg184223

    ————————————–
    “…the mean daily intake of unprocessed red meat dropped from 0.75 to 0.63 servings from 1986 to 2006 in men and from 1.10 to 0.55 servings from 1980 to 2006 in women.”

    Well blow me, DROPPING the intake of UNPROCESSED red meat is actually what caused cancer and heart disease, go figger.

    “Red meat is blamed for one in 10 early deaths”

    In other words, 90% of early deaths are caused by lack of red meat.
    ———————————————–

    Can’t argue with that math.

  18. Marilyn says:

    @Chris Bennett: “It is crazy to have the attitude that a little bit of sugar will not harm. ”

    Probably a little bit of sugar wouldn’t to a lot of harm, but what the above graph shows — 100 pounds of sugar per person per year — works out to something like 0.27 pounds per day. A pound of granulated sugar is 2.25 cups. If I figured it right, that comes to 0.6 cups — or a little over half a cup — of sugar per day. Taken together with the recommended 6-11 servings of grain per day, that’s a pretty hefty amount.

  19. Firebird says:

    IF red meat causes cancer…what a way to go!

  20. JayMan says:

    “Is this proof that sugar is driving the rise in bowel cancer? Nope. Correlation does not prove causation.

    Indeed. Speaking of that, a new study is all the rage. While I haven’t read the study itself, according to my understanding, it claims to show that walking is just as beneficial for your heart as is running (ironically that may be true). Of course, it’s a classic correlational study, they followed walkers and runners and found that their purported markers of heart health were similar.

    Of course, the study’s finding would sound a lot less interesting when phrased this way: people with healthier hearts are apt to walk and run a lot.

    Now of course, I can’t say that there is nothing to this, but come on, this study alone doesn’t prove any causal relationship between walking/running and heart health.

    In other news, check my recent blog post on obesity worldwide, and patterns of such:

    A Fat World – With a Fat Secret? | JayMan’s Blog

    Yup, just like thin people are more likely to take up running.

    Good analysis on your blog.

  21. Brad says:

    Here’s a chart with US numbers from the USDA. Red meat starts dropping off around 1970 and kind of levels out around mid 90′s. Poultry is still on the rise though…I think I’m gonna replace my poultry intake with more red meat since poultry obviously causes bowel cancer since it’s the one on the rise ;).

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3045642/figure/F2/

  22. That Warriner video is pretty poor, HGs did hunt animals which are leaner than domesticated varieties but as has been noted ate the fattier parts and in addition selected fattier animals to kill. The “humans have no claws” is an old vegan/vegetarian idea which immediately falls down when we note that we have been using tools for well over two million years and gorillas have the most terrifying fangs you have ever seen (as have some deer).
    Meat statisitcs for the UK are interesting, the NHS lists red meat as a carcinogen and has recently recommended eating less, but then the veggieish healthy chicken based diet doesn’t seem to be doing people many favours over here. Fat intake is based on available fat and does not account for fat being trimmed.

  23. Ulfric M Douglas says:

    My best friend died of bowel cancer a few years ago, aged 65-ish, so old enough to get anything, really.
    His diet was quite restrictive and high in oven-chips (pre-processed spud with veg oil) and white bread sandwiches. Plain ordinary food but only if looked at from a late 20th century point of view. Very LOW in basic real food cooked from scratch, I mean they didn’t even cook many potatoes, rather ate processed potato products fried in veg oils : as I did for a few years, ages ago.
    My uncle died of bowel cancer many years ago : 1960′s-1970′s thinking health-food fan : TONS of bran/brown bread, raw veg. Hardly any proper meat.

    I’m banking on plenty of red meat for me, NO brown bread or brans/grains at all, NO veg oils. Crossed fingers eh?

    Well, I look at it this way: if I’m wrong and die in my 60s, at least I enjoyed my meals along the way. I never enjoyed low-fat diets.

  24. Miriam says:

    What I think would be interesting is to see the rate of consumption for things like bran, whole grains or even vegetables over the last 35 years. Hmmm, let’s see.

    http://www.farmfoundation.org/news/articlefiles/361-Mancino.pdf

    So here we can see that in 1975 Americans were eating about 5.2 oz of grain a day. By 2000 it was about 7.5. Huh. Math isn’t my thing, but that’s about 2.3 oz more, which is 44%, right? (if my little percentage calculator is right). What a correlation! Clearly, grain is causing bowel cancer.

    Huh. That same presentation shows that since 1970 American total consumption of meat (all kinds), diary, fruit and vegetables have remained pretty static. The only things that have gone up are grain, sugar and “added fat” which is going to be mostly vegetable “fat.”

    Oh oh! And the same report shows that since 1975 our consumption of whole milk has drastically dropped, while 2% has gone way up. Clearly, skim milk is causing bowel cancer. Wait. I changed my mind. Lack of whole milk is causing bowel cancer.

    Shockingly, the FARM foundation report seems to think that eating even more grains is the answer to all our problems. And theirs!

    Their ability to ignore the evidence is amazing indeed.

  25. JayMan says:

    You know, when you consider the rather sharp rise in sugar consumption at around 1980, which tracks when obesity rates began to surge, I wonder if the real reason obesity rates have risen is entirely due to increased sugar intake?

  26. Dave says:

    I have a copy of Mike Anderson’s video Healing Cancer from the Inside Out. When I first watched it a few years ago, I swallowed it hook, line and sinker. It is full of the usual Vegan propagandists, especially the infamous TC Campbell. Now, that’s not to say that the video is all bad. There’s actually some good stuff in there if the information on the ‘cancer industry’ is to be believed. I will give them credit for identifying dietary causes as a primary factor in the growth of cancer.

    Where things really fall apart, though, is when they spend so much time blaming animal protein for cancer. I was watching it again yesterday, just for kicks. Knowing what I know now, it made me want to scream at the screen, ‘it’s not the meat, you fools, it’s the sugar!!’ All the time spent talking about ‘whole plant foods good, meat bad’ and barely any mention of the correlation between processed grains, sugars and cancer. Go figure!

    Campbell had to jump through some … uh … interesting mental hoops to decide animal protein causes cancer in humans.

  27. Anna says:

    And here is another article blaming a chemical in red meat for heart disease. But what the reporter didn’t look into is that l-carnitine is made naturally in the body and is found in nuts, fruits and cereals also. I’ll bet that the researchers didn’t bother to look into that side of the equation but stuck to red meat and muscle milk.
    http://news.yahoo.com/culprit-red-meat-linked-heart-disease-122309519.html

  28. gallier2 says:

    Hi Tom, I don’t know if you Adele Hite an excellent blogger, fun and full of science. Here her last entry on a common vegan shit (literally) http://eathropology.com/2013/04/08/broccoli-has-more-protein-than-steak-and-other-crap/

    Yes, I’ve read her stuff. That’s an excellent post.

  29. Bob Geary says:

    I’m glad you based your stats on “meat available for consumption” (or I’m glad that it was the handiest reliable stat you could find :-)), rather than food questionnaire results.

    I’ve seen otherwise serious people claim that the reason we’re getting fatter and sicker the more we adhere to the CW diet guidelines is that people are “cheating” – eating even more red meat & butter than they used to, and lying to their doctors about it.

    So the fat aren’t just lazy and greedy – they’re liars, too. Because that’s so much easier to believe than the Conventional Wisdom being wrong.

    Focusing on the production end removes that argument. (Unfortunately, it’ll be replaced by something just as specious.)

    Yup, much easier for the so-called experts to decide people are lying than to question their own advice.

  30. Kristin says:

    I’m glad to see all the references to vegetable oils. That graph looks as dramatic as the sugar graph. Our culture as a whole has quit eating butter and lard and enjoy “healthy” vegetable oils instead. If I’m going to jump to conclusions with the whole correlation versus causation thing I’m backing the veg oil and sugar horses for most likely to kill me from cancers of all kinds. I don’t eat out very often anymore. After a lifetime of sugar, white flour and veg oil I feel like I need to give my poor system a break. Think I’ll have a steak and salad for lunch…

  31. JStheguy says:

    I swear, one of these days we are just going to see “RED MEAT WORSE THAN HITLER!” in big bold letters on the front of our newspapers.

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