As the World #Health Organization (WHO) announced that processed meats are now classified as a group 1 carcinogen and red meat as potentially carcinogenic, social media exploded in fury. So did some media outlets, which have downplayed the warning while advocating for moderation instead of radical change. 

That is, according to top notch obesity specialist Dr. Garth Davis, a mistake. “The problem is that people say ‘we’re going to do it in moderation’, but our moderation isn’t close to what they recommend as such”, he tells Blasting #News. “Our moderation is meat at about every single meal. It’s the sausage and eggs, the cold cut sandwich for lunch and steak for dinner, and so we’re eating way more meat than what they recommend.” 

Dr.

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Davis, one of the best bariatric surgeons in the country (also known for his participation in TLC’s docu-series My Weight is Killing Me), says the outcry in the media has confounded people. “For processed meat, this isn’t ‘potentially causes cancer’: this is definitely carcinogenic. They graded just how sure they are.” 

But this isn’t really news in the scientific field; evidence of a link between cancer and  the consumption of meat products has been building up for years, study after study. To grade processed meat as a carcinogen, the WHO adopted the conclusions of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a panel of cancer specialists who reviewed 800 epidemiological studies. “The studies underestimate just how strong the bond is. They’re under a lot of pressure to not even come up with these things,” Dr.

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Davis states. 

How does it cause cancer?

There are a number of reasons, which boil down to the composition of meat itself. Red meat contains the chemical heme, that our gut breaks down and ends up forming N-nitroso compounds. These damage the cells in our bowel, causing other cells in the bowel lining to replicate so it can heal – opening the door to problems in the DNA of the cells, a first step towards cancer. The problem with processed meat is that it contains even more chemicals, like nitrite preservatives. And the process of cooking meat at high temperatures adds to the chemical generation. 

The American Cancer Society estimates 589,430 people will die from cancer this year in the U.S., with 1,658,370 new cases being diagnosed. The number of new cases is expected to rise by 70% worldwide over the next two decades. The WHO identifies one third of cancer-related deaths result from “the five leading behavioural and dietary risks: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use.”

Skepticism and confusion

“I'd say that the link between meat and cancer is much stronger than the WHO lets on,” Dr.

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Davis thinks. So why the skepticism? “The industry did that, the same happened with tobacco. They create a seed of doubt, a relativity, and people will say 'I don’t know who’s right but I like my cheeseburger’.” The doctor says that “just about every study that’s pro-meat, egg or dairy is funded by the industry,” and that no independent National Institutes of Health study shows meat is beneficial. “It doesn’t happen because it’s not good for you. So the industry creates doubt, which confuses people and they make the wrong choices based on their taste.” 

The WHO report comes after the US Department of Agriculture said they will not consider climate change while reviewing the new food guidelines – even though the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended a decrease in the consumption of animal products and increase in fruits, grains and vegetables for better health and “less environmental impact.” Why? 

“Because America is controlled by industry," Dr. Davis thinks. He says the USDA has a “weird” job, juggling support for the industry and the interests of the consumer. “The USDA experts suggested we need to be considering the sustainability of the decisions we make. They got that shot down. The industry is just very powerful.”