The Fat Head Report: The Latest “Meat Causes Colorectal Cancer!” Study Is Nonsense

The latest Fat Head Report video is about yet another “meat causes colorectal cancer!” study a reporter for the Telegraph described as “frankly terrifying.” It’s such weak observational nonsense, Walter Willett would no doubt approve.

Here’s why you don’t need to be terrified. Transcript below the video.


Hello, I’m Tom Naughton and this is the Fat Head Report.

Well, I guess I need to create an ongoing segment called Meat Will Kill You.

Meat won’t kill you of course, but there are people who desperately want you to believe it will. So they’re constantly producing studies designed to scare you.

And when I say scare you, I’m not kidding. A writer for the UK telegraph described the most recent meat will kill you study as frankly terrifying.

So let’s take a look at the reason this writer for the telegraph was apparently hiding in her closet, in case her home was invaded by several ounces of murderous meat.

Oxford University research on half a million people found that eating red meat just once a day increased the risk of bowel cancer by a fifth.

Wow, that IS terrifying. Unless you understand how these studies are done.

A study like this is what’s called an observational study. And to explain what that means, here’s a clip from my recent film, Fat Head Kids.

If you conducted the study Dr. Fishbones did, you wouldn’t have to guess who does or does not have a tattoo. So at least you’d be starting with accurate data.

For dietary studies, that’s not the case. To determine what people eat, researchers have them fill out a food survey that looks something like this. Do you see the problem here? These surveys are wildly inaccurate. Some people report eating so little, they couldn’t possibly develop cancer, because they’d starve to death first.

Then near the end of the study, researchers have people fill out the same survey again. And from this, they decide what people have been eating for the previous five or 10 or 20 years.

But let’s suppose people can actually remember how much of everything they been eating and report it accurately. You still have that problem with the confounding variables Mr. Spot mentioned.

And guess what? In this study the people who developed colorectal cancer didn’t just eat more meat. They were also more likely to smoke. They also drank more.

Ah, but wait, the researchers tell us, we adjust our data for lifestyle factors like smoking and drinking.

Well, actually, they adjust the data based on how much people tell them they’ve been smoking and drinking.

But heavy drinkers routinely underestimate how much they drink. And smokers routinely underestimate or just plain lie about how much they smoke – or even if they smoke.

But okay, let’s forget all that. Let’s pretend that by some miracle, the researchers had accurate data all the way through, top to bottom.

In that case, would the higher cancer rate among the heavy meat eaters be frankly terrifying? After all, one-fifth more colorectal cancer sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?

Well, let’s look at the data. This was a study of nearly half a million people.

Among the people classified as labeled as lower meat eaters, 5.49 out of every thousand developed colorectal cancer.

And among the people classified as heavy meat-eaters, it was 6.58 out of every thousand.

So for the people classified as heavy meat eaters, the actual increase in the odds of developing colorectal cancer was one in a thousand.

And here’s the final reason not to be terrified. Good scientists don’t accept a hypothesis unless the evidence supporting it is consistent.

So if we say this food or this behavior causes cancer we need to see that result over and over and over.

Which is the case, for example, with smoking and lung cancer. You’re never going to see a study where smokers and non-smokers have identical rates of lung cancer. And you’ll certainly never see a study where the smokers have lower rates of lung cancer.

But in this observational study, people who ate red meat did not have a higher rate of colorectal cancer.

And in THIS observational study people who ate more meat did not develop more colorectal cancer.

And in this observational study it was the vegetarians who had a higher rate of colorectal cancer — 39 percent higher.

If eating meat causes colorectal cancer, how can that possibly be?

Good scientists don’t just pick and choose the results they like. And when it comes to meat and colon cancer, the results are all over the place. Which means it’s highly unlikely that meat causes colon cancer.

So enjoy your bacon.

And you can stop screaming now.

If you enjoy my posts, please consider a small donation to the Fat Head Kids GoFundMe campaign.

28 thoughts on “The Fat Head Report: The Latest “Meat Causes Colorectal Cancer!” Study Is Nonsense

  1. Lori Miller

    Well done. I would add that since humans have been eating meat for a few million years, we ought to be pretty well adapted to it by now.

    Have you thought about using a gray or tan background? Or just having the blue background without the green box? The blue and green don’t go well together. I’ve read that when you see analogous colors, your eye expects one of them to be darker than the other.

  2. Richard B

    The problem is that your eminently sensible response will be read by 1/1000th of the audience that saw the headline and continue to spread the nonsense among their families and friends. They have the platform.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      There is that. We just need to get the video up to a million views or so.

  3. Farside

    Minor typo can be found in this sentence.

    But in this observational study, people who “eight ate” red meat did not have a higher rate of colorectal cancer.

  4. Dianne

    Been doing some googling, and it seems that many studies and articles link redandorprocessedmeats the way dieticians link hearthealthywholegrains. They don’t seem to differentiate between natural red meat and the stuff that gets added to some brands of hot dogs and bologna.

    BTW, I LIKE the green background and the blue box. To each her own, I guess. Or maybe it’s all those years I spent in western Oregon.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I’m not yet convinced that processed meat is bad for us. Could just be that people tend to eat processed meats on sandwiches, pizzas, and other white-flour delivery vehicles.

      1. Firebird7478

        When I worked for the regional sports cable station, they would sometimes order out for pizza on busy event nights ie, Monday Night Football, where they knew we’d be there until 3 AM. Co-workers use to laugh at me because I would peel the cheese and toppings off the crust. This was back in the days of Atkins and Rob Faigin’s book, “Natural Hormone Enhancement” — which I recommended to you and your reviewed here. They use to say I was wasting food, and that the pepperoni and sausage were the worst ingredients, neither of which have never been a favorite topping of mine. (I like mushrooms and experimenting with various cheeses)

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Heh-heh … I’m think of the low-carb cruises when the low-carbers hit the free pizza bar late at night. Lots of crusts get tossed in the trash.

      2. Dianne

        You’re right, come to think about it. I’ve trained myself to eat hot dogs with a fork and dip them in mustard (sometimes), and to wrap sliced deli turkey around a bit of cream cheese or string cheese (sometimes), but in general people eat these things with buns or bread. Tasty, but it sure changes the nutritional balance. Especially if you have some chips on the side and wash it all down with a soda or sweet iced tea.

        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          When I read somewhere that the biggest sources of processed meat in western diets are pizza, burritos and deli sandwiches, I realized we might just be talking about guilt by association. Those of us who eat those meats without the white-flour delivery vehicle are in the minority.

        2. Firebird7478

          Speaking of cream cheese, I just started adding that to ground beef. I season the beef, add some mushrooms, then pressure cook the beef. Once it’s done, I have to break up the beef because it somehow forms into a loaf during the cooking process. Then I dump an 8 oz. package of cream cheese in there, stir it around until it melts down, letting it cool off and set.

          How simple can it be?

      3. Don

        When I was in my teens I stayed with relatives on the Mediterranean coast of Italy for almost a year. The amount of processed meat they ate was mind-boggling! And yet, 80 year-old men on bicycles were everywhere. At least from I saw, the Mediterranean diet was not as pure and vegetable-centric as we have been led to believe.

          1. Firebird7478

            Even then, it all depends on what region around the Mediterranean you’re looking at. Everyone seems to be tied to Pioppi, Italy and it’s not even on the Mediterranean Sea. Most nations on the Mediterranean are in Northern Africa. Can’t wait to read all about the Tunisian Diet!

  5. Stuart

    Typo alert:
    “So if we save this food or this behavior causes cancer we need to see that result over and over and over.”

    I think it should be “So if we say”.

    Also it would be helpful if you have links to the studies mentioned in the transcript so us nerds can look them up.

    Otherwise, keep up the good work!

  6. Lori Miller

    I stumbled across an academic journal article today (can’t find it now) that asserted the link between a diet high in red meat and cancer. Someone compared the “high red meat diet” of urban African Americans with South Africans. I’ve seen what a lot of urban African-Americans around here put in their grocery carts. There’s red meat, but a lot of food in boxes, too–presumably highly processed. The article also mentioned “high fat, high sugar” American diets, as if fat and sugar were the same thing.

    I’d like to see the meat-causes-cancer crowd explain this study from a while back showing Japan having one of the highest rates among men, whereas meat-loving France, Denmark and the USA were in the middle. (The authors attributed Japan’s high rate to Japanese eating more Western foods, apparently more than the amount real Westerners eat, but attributed women’s lower rates overall mainly to less smoking.)

    1. Paul

      When I look at the chance for colon cancer it’s like 4.5 percent. Yet in the study it’s like 5 in a thousand. Why?

  7. chris c

    This is impossible! It’s a Vegan Fact that meat causes heart disease and diabetes, so how can we possibly live long enough to develop cancer?

    Yes I agree, maybe if we ate the meat fried in industrially produced Omega 6 seed oils, with the bun AND the fries AND the big gulp, that might do it. The meat would be blamed for what the rubbish did.

    And In Other News, on the BBC but I couldn’t find it on their website. there has been an increase in heart disease. Well I think that proves that low fat diets and statins didn’t work (Malcolm Kendrick pointed out that there was not even a blip in the decline of CVD when statins were intorduced) I suspect the reply would be that the diets are not yet low enough in fat and the statins have not yet been prescribed to enough people at high enough doses.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Of course. They’ll announce that we need to do the same thing again, only bigger.

  8. Desmond

    One point: Even if the study actually proved a 1 in 1000 increase in cancer among meat eaters… what is the all cause mortality difference? I would rather die of cancer in 20 years, than some other terrible disease 12 years.

    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I had my suspicions because 1) “processed meat causes cancer” is based on observational evidence, which is always suspect, and 2) I don’t see the biological mechanism. What is it about curing and processing meat that cause it to trigger the growth of tumors?

  9. Ulfric Douglas

    “white-flour delivery vehicles” cause cancer,
    AND cooking with “vegetable oil”.

Comments are closed.