Red Meat Gets The Blame Again

      64 Comments on Red Meat Gets The Blame Again

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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64 thoughts on “Red Meat Gets The Blame Again

  1. JayMan

    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?

    Reply
  2. Dave

    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.

    Reply
  3. Bob Geary

    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.

    Reply
  4. JayMan

    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?

    Reply
  5. Dave

    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.

    Reply
  6. Bob Geary

    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.

    Reply
  7. Kristin

    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…

    Reply
  8. JStheguy

    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.

    Reply
  9. JStheguy

    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.

    Reply
  10. Kristin

    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…

    Reply

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