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The Taoiseach says he's eating less red meat to stay healthy - but is it healthier to do that?

“Some people say that meat is the new tobacco, and that’s absolutely not true,” says Dr Robert O’Connor of the Irish Cancer Society.

Image: Shutterstock/yingko

THE TAOISEACH’S COMMENTS to his parliamentary party in January this year where he said he was eating less red meat for the environment kicked up a flurry of meat-eating stances.

Irish farmers in particular were incensed over the remarks; Varadkar had already been seen as out of touch with rural farmers’ concerns – now he’s seen as making a personal decision against their livelihoods. 

Rural TDs quizzed Varadkar about his comments in his Dáil appearance the next day, where he was asked to explain his comments: “I said that I was trying to eat less red meat, not giving it up – I had a very nice Hereford steak last night.”

I was trying to eat less red meat for two reasons – one health, the other climate change. And it’s not flippant, it is a fact that red meat increases instances of cancer, and also contributes more to climate change. But I can reassure Deputies that I’ve not become a vegan or anything like that.

In the months that followed, during a farmers’ protest about the measures taken to protect farmers with the threat of a no-deal Brexit looming large, one fervent activist shouted: “Where’s the beef, ya vegan?!”

The level of disappointment from the representative groups was the strongest.

The Irish Cattle and Sheep Association’s Patrick Kent wrote to the Taoiseach to say that his comments were “reckless in the extreme”, and called on him to clarify that he wasn’t suggesting people eat less sustainably produced Irish beef and lamb.

“As one of the most important beef exporters in the northern hemisphere, it is very unfortunate indeed that our Taoiseach should be calling into question the sustainability of Irish beef production.”

But many more wrote to the Taoiseach in the aftermath of his comments to show their support, as correspondence released under a Freedom of Information request show:

“Well done for announcing that you are cutting down on red meat… A hearty congratulations, you are setting an excellent example for the Irish people. Red meat is known as a probable cause of cancer and so this is an excellent step towards health.”

Well done for announcing that you have cut down on red meat, this is a great example to set. As you know, red meat is a cause of cancer, so that will help everyone… as well as climate change of course.

“I am not a Fine Gael supporter but I would like to commend your recent comments relating to climate change, meat and health,” an environmental scientist wrote. “Climate change represents a far greater challenge than Brexit (while I appreciate the immediate threat it poses) and if we fail to act now to adapt and mitigate climate change impacts, our society will be drastically changed.”

Does eating red meat give you cancer?

But in that batch of correspondence, one person wrote: “While I agree that sugar consumption and processed foods should be reduced. 

A well-balanced diet should include protein foods like quality meat, dairy and eggs. If anything, we can make a difference with replacing some beef systems with rabbit production…

“I hope our government defends all that is good about our irish foods, while supporting new farming systems.”

So – does eating less red meat reduce your risk of cancer? It’s a lot more complicated than it first seems.

“There’s a lot of misinformation on both sides of that argument,” says Dr Robert O’Connor of the Irish Cancer Society.

Where we see the most challenge is where people form very fixed beliefs on these things – like, ‘Because I don’t eat meat I won’t get cancer,’ that’s absolutely not true. Some people say that meat is the new tobacco, and that’s absolutely not true either.

“For processed meats, eating large amounts result in a small increase in getting certain types of cancer, in particular bowel cancer. The research is reasonably black-and-white around that as much as it can be.”

shutterstock_1098175979 Source: Shutterstock/Susan Schmitz

He says that the combination of the type of treatment that’s done to make bacon, sausages, pudding, and salamis, includes a chemical, salting, or drying process that reduces the risk of bacteria growing.

Some of these processes and chemicals may interact with different processes in our body, and in turn, may result in a slight mutation in the bowel.

But the actual risk from it, the chance of it giving you cancer is proportionally small. When studies looked at around 10,000 people eating red and processed meat over their lifetime, around 40 of them were diagnosed with bowel cancer, and if they eat a lot more of it, it results in an extra 8 cases of bowel cancer for those 10,000 people.

O’Connor says that many daily activities carry a certain amount of risk with them – driving your car or cycling your bike could be riskier on that macro-scientific level than walking. But many people choose to do it, because the chances of their health being affected solely because of that is relatively small.

There are lots of things we can do to impact our risk of cancer – we can reduce our sun exposure, or stop smoking and drinking, which has a much bigger impact on our cancer risk. But it’s up to you then as to what you want to do. Everything has a risk.

The figures could also be correlation rather than causation: if people are eating a lot of red meat, it may mean they’re not doing as much of other things like exercising. 

And while studies on those who eat fish would be indicate that it’s a slightly protected food, those who mostly eat fish would be more engaged in other healthy lifestyle activities, says O’Connor.

Part of the reason that there’s some confusion around red meat and it’s links to cancer, is to do with the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s classifications on what is carcinogenic, what isn’t and what they’re unsure of. 

red meat Source: IARC

Processed meats are classed as carcinogenic, in Category 1 – the same one as smoking.

Red meat is in Category 2 – a confusing catch-all jumble of activities where scientists can’t rule out one way or another whether it’s carcinogenic or not. Night shift work is also in this category.

Category 3 is items for which there is no scientific evidence that prove these activities cause cancer; this classification system is based on evidence, and not on the level of risk each activity poses to an individual, which makes it confusing for the layperson to decide what they should be avoiding and what is just scientific knowledge. 

This has lead to headlines like: “Processed meats rank alongside smoking as cancer causes – WHO.” Although technically correct, it’s misleading to say processed meats threaten the same risk of cancer as cigarettes.

“To not smoke for any great length of time or to give up smoking, or stopping smoking at any stage results in obvious health benefits, O’Connor says emphatically. “People who live the longest throughout the world, almost all of them do not smoke.”

Alcohol consumption is also associated with 8 different types of cancer, and drinking in moderation has shown to reduce the risk of cancer.

O’Connor says that because meat was expensive, it formed a less central role in the Irish family’s diet than it does now, when all food is cheaper. So people should think more critically about what’s in their diet and on trying to make it as varied as possible, he says.

“When we get older we need more nutrients: different stages of life bring so many different stages of health – red meat is a good opportunity to get iron into the diet, especially for those with diseases like anemia and so on,” O’Connor says.

So was it a good message for Varadkar to give to citizens, after all?

“Yes, the evidence does support what he is doing in terms of there’s a small chance it will reduce a risk of cancer,” he says, but it’s the other activities that are more important.

I don’t think he smokes and I’ve seen him exercise, and he’s not anaemic, so he’s relatively fit already. We’re not saying give up meat, but they might consider how much meat is in their diet; consider the amount of vegetables; have fish every now and again and not have meat with every meal, but the chances of it having an effect is proportionally small.

The EU has a 12-step code to reducing your risk of getting cancer, which is a much more black-and-white things of what people can do, he says.

“It’s like betting on a racing horse – there’s no guarantee you’ll win, but there are certain things you can look at – if your horse is overweight, it’s going to reduce its chances. But if it’s a healthy weight, it doesn’t mean it isn’t going to win.”

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