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The Carnivore’s Dilemma

Looking Closer At Claims That Red and Processed Meats Cause Cancer

Mobile Health has already gone far and beyond. I would like to thank the entire staff, especially the clinician that drew my blood. She made me feel really comfortable.
—Mobile Health Patient

On October, 26, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC for short, issued some devastating news for carnivores everywhere:


Basically… Practically… Ok, maybe not, but that’s what you’d think the IARC said considering all of the hullabaloo we’ve been hearing in the news lately.

Not surprisingly, reactions have been mixed. Some people are smugly patting themselves on the back (I should say continuing to smugly pat themselves on the back) for switching to a raw, vegan, gluten-free lifestyle years ago, while others are having an existential crisis in the meat section of their local grocer.

For my part, I was mostly confused. Who are these IARC people? What do they mean when they say meat causes cancer? Why are they trying to ruin Barbeques? Well, we here at Mobile Health thought we’d bring some clarity to the situation, or at least dial down the hysteria a few notches. Here are some answers to questions you might have about last month’s announcement.

Is the IARC even a legitimate organization, or is this like the time the Council of Raisin Consumption emailed me about my low levels of Vitamin R?

Nowadays it does seem like you see a lot of phony “authorities” out there, but by all accounts, the IARC is a legitimate organization. Created in 1965, the IARC is a specialized branch of the World Health Organization that aims to lessen cancer’s burden on humanity. It now involves the cooperative efforts of 25 countries.

So what exactly does this announcement say?

The IARC looked at both processed meat along with red meat and determined that each of those has a different risk of cancer associated with it. The IARC has a cancer risk rating system for each substance that it tests. It goes from group 1(carcinogenic, or cancer causing, to humans) all the way to group 4 (Probably not carcinogenic), with group 2 divided into A and B (probably and possibly carcinogenic respectively). Processed meat was placed in group 1, while red meat was placed in group 2A.

Wait, so eating hot dogs is as bad for me as smoking cigarettes?

Not exactly. This announcement basically says that the IARC knows that these substances can cause cancer, but doesn’t imply the risk is the same across all carcinogenic substances. The IARC basically says that if you eat a hot dog, or other processed meat, every day you’ll raise your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%, and eating a quarter pound of red meat daily will raise the risk 17%. Your risk of contracting colorectal cancer is already fairly low, but eating red meat and processed meats raises that risk.

So what does the IARC announcement mean for my everyday life?

I think the best way to think about this announcement is in the following terms:

  • Red meat and processed meat are a “sometimes” food: Michael Pollan’s advice on eating is a fairly straight forward way of thinking about this. Pollan says, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Red meat and processed meat are best left to special occasions and the Fourth of July.
  • You’re not going to die right away if you eat a steak: It’s ok to indulge in some meat from time to time, and just because you’ve eaten a lot of red meat in the past doesn’t mean you’ll definitely get cancer.
  • Use this announcement to springboard you into healthier life choices: instead of looking at the announcement as a negative, try to use this information to springboard into some healthier life choices. Start reading labels and ordering the fish. There’s no one who couldn’t afford to make better decisions about their health.

Well I hope that brought some clarity to the matter, and remember, there’s always a benefit to staying informed about your health, but never an upside to panicking about it. Take care and stay healthy!