Thursday, 26 May 2011

Ham-fisted cancer scare

Full disclosure upfront: I like meat. It tastes good. I like steak, ham, salami and sausages. A lot. They are delicious.

They also cause cancer, dammit! Bowel cancer... cancer with shit in it.

Red meat 'increases risk of bowel cancer' - cries the Herald Sun

Warning to stay out of ham's way - puns the Sydney Morning Herald

No ham, say cancer experts - moans The Age

I had a strange sense of déjà vu (is there any other kind?) when reading these headlines. And not without reason.

The World Cancer Research Fund UK has just published a 855 page report on the best available evidence for preventing bowel cancer. This is an update to a 2007 report.

The new report, or should I say the press release*, makes a number of statements about whether particular nutritional and lifestyle factors either increase or decrease the likelihood of developing bowel cancer, or whether there is insufficient evidence. One such statement is:
For red and processed meat, findings of 10 new studies were added to the 14 studies analysed as part of the 2007 Report. The Panel confirmed that there is convincing evidence that both red and processed meat increase bowel cancer risk.
So, nothing new really, just confirming what we already knew. And, if you look more closely at the report (I didn't but these guys did), the stated risks from red and processed meats are actually slightly lower than they were in the previous report.

Is it the advice they give that's new, then? Nup. The advice to restrict weekly intake of red meat to 500g and to avoid processed meats has not changed.

In fact, the barely mentioned (in the press) major new finding of this report is actually a good news story.
The Expert Panel behind the CUP’s judgements also concluded that the evidence that foods containing dietary fibre reduce bowel cancer risk has become stronger since the publication of the 2007 report. They considered the evidence sufficient to strengthen the conclusion that foods containing fibre protect against bowel cancer from “probable” to “convincing”.
Now that is news! Pass me another Weat-Bix! Another notch in fibre's arrow of goodness! But they bury this information in a story that is mostly not, in fact news at all. Why? Because meat is a polarising topic (vegans hate it and Matt Preston loves it**). Fibre, not so much. A story about meat causing cancer will be widely read. A story about fibre preventing cancer, not so much.

Unless there was a catchy headline. May I suggest:
Abbott and Turnbull throw support behind fibre
It might require a couple of phone calls to make sure it is true, but I reckon it would be well worth the effort (and, surely, I'd be one-third of the way to a Walkley).

Funnily enough, one article that isn't going to win a Walkley award is the Herald Sun article mentioned earlier. Not only is the headline super dull, but the first line of the article reads...
EATING less red meat could prevent 6000 cases of Australia's second deadliest cancer every year, experts claim.
Which is wrong. Way wrong. What the experts in fact claim - in the very same article and elsewhere - is that 43% of cases (around 6,000 cases per year in Australia, although the percentage is based on UK data) could be prevented if people "ate less meat and more fibre, drank less, maintained healthy weight and kept active".

So very wrong.

I won't blog about anything unless I read it, or someone gives me the gist of it.
** I wonder how his bowels are holding up?

1 comment:

Leanna Tynan said...

I didn't know that they can cause cancer. Maybe it's because they are all processed. It's a good thing that you shared this valuable information to us.
bladder cancer causes