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Does Meat Cause Cancer?

In the United States there is a fairly common belief based on dubious research and media hype that vegetarian diets are healthier and protective against cancer. I would like to set that myth to rest, because to date, the studies have not been clear on this.

Let’s start with a close look at the popular 2005 book The China Study.

If you have read this book, you know that on the surface it appears to make quite a case against consuming animal protein. It asserts that higher animal protein intakes were clearly associated with increased risk of cancer.

First, it cites animal studies of the book’s author, US researcher Dr. T. Colin Campbell, which found that feeding casein (a protein from milk) to rodents gave them cancer.  The author then reasoned that human research was needed, so he looked to China where he hypothesized that China’s lower rates of cancer could be due to their lower intake of animal protein.

There are a couple of problems with the whole premise. First, while China does have lower rates of some cancers, it has the highest rate of stomach cancer in the world!1 That fact is never discussed in the book.

Second, when you analyze the studies upon which the book was based, you find that the rates of cancer for meat eaters did increase, but only slightly.  In fact, as one author who analyzed the China study data pointed out, animal protein increased rates of cancer only slightly and smoking did not increase rates of cancer at all.2

With these results not being definitive, and in some instances so contrary to other research, we need to compare them to the work of other researchers.

In doing so, we find that other studies have not confirmed the China study data.  For instance, a study from 20063 found no differences in “cancer rates between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.”  This study found that vegetarians did tend to have lower BMIs and lower cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians. They also had 20% fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease.

These findings led many to conclude that vegetarian diets are healthier, but when it comes to overall mortality, there is s no difference in vegetarians versus non-vegetarians.

If you look beyond cancer, is a vegetarian diet any more healthful overall than a diet that includes meat? Again, no — and research proves it.

  • A Dutch review of the issue concluded that a vegetarian diet conferred no more benefit than a diet that included plenty of unrefined plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, but which also included animal protein. On the other hand, according to their literature review, a vegetarian diet does significantly increase one’s risk of certain nutrient deficiencies like vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc — especially in vegans.4
  • Another study found that vegetarian diets were associated with lower vitamin B12 status and therefore to increased levels of artery-clogging homocysteine.5
  • A Slovakian researcher has stated that the healthiest inhabitants of Northern Europe are from Iceland, Switzerland and Scandinavia, populations that consume high amounts of animal protein.6

This is the type of balanced reporting that I find to be missing in many discussions of vegetarianism.

I do want to acknowledge that meat consumption is less healthy today than in the past. Fats in meats store pesticides and other toxins that occur in the environment. However, I do not feel a massive shift to vegetarian diets would improve our health statistics, especially in the 25% or so of the population who are insulin resistant.

So, what kind of diet do I recommend? Whole and unprocessed plant foods for their lowered health risks. Eat more vegetables and salads, and some fruit and beans, but limit grains and starchy foods to tolerance.

Unprocessed, organic animal proteins like chicken, turkey, and fish should also be included.  Red meat can be eaten, but limited to no more than once a week.   Grass-fed beef and bison are good red meat choices.

This is the diet we find to be most successful for the majority of people. It provides immediate health benefits like weight and cholesterol lowering, and is still satisfying.  And so far the evidence shows that it will be just as protective against cancer.

The author of the Slovakian study cited above concluded as I do, that it is “ample consumption of fruits and vegetables, not the exclusion of meat,” that makes one healthier.

References

  1. http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerstats/types/stomach/incidence/.
  2. www.westonaprice.org/bookreviews/chinastudy.html.
  3. Proc Nutr Soc. 2006; 65(1):35-41.
  4. Arch Pub Health. 2005, 63:1-16.
  5. Ann Nutr Metab. 2006;50:485-491.
  6. Ginter E. Bratisl Lek Listy. 2008. 109(10):463-6.

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Comments:

  1. Leigh says:

    You don’t mention that the Scandinavian countries have high rates of osteoporosis, most likely due to high animal protein consumption, including
    dairy. You also don’t mention sources of safe animal protein, nor the significant problems associated with meat, fowl and fish production, which is related to whether these proteins are actually healthy for us. Let’s raise awareness of health, which involves being compassionate for ourselves, and not be ignorant of the deplorable conditions in which many animals raised for human consumption live. Health of all, animals, the planet, and ourselves is interrelated.

    I feel it is unfair to criticize others for their “unbalanced” studies when your article also doesn’t mention the prevalent health issues in the countries you mention.

  2. Marcel says:

    @Leigh

    Why the antagonism ? One article hardly ever answers all the questions.

  3. duke says:

    James is absolutely incorect. The American Institue of Cancer Research (www.AICR.org.)has sponsored academic research that clearly reveals that the more red meat you eat the higher the incidence of colon, breast, prostate, pancreatic and other cancers. Betond that, Dean Ornish M.D. has also shown in his work at The Preventive Medical Research Institure that a the closer one eats to a vegatarian diet the better their health.

  4. White Fawn says:

    I dont recall anyone saying eats lots of red meat.Anything in moderation is OKay.I have many vegetarian friends who feel superior to us meat-eaters.I have never seen them where they arent sick or have some sort of health issue.I limit my red meat to once a week,eat a balanced diet,am in exellent health.Enjoy the gifts from the “gods” and eat what you feel like….in moderation.P.S.I love it when I catch them eating Jello…an animal product!

  5. TP Ravindran says:

    Whatever has been stated is from a medical perspective alone. It is not merely the well-being of human beings that is important. When we say human beings have higher intelligence then it is important by using this capability they have to understand the purpose of life also. Well-being is one of the parameters for happiness and not all in all. The hierarchical set-up of a human being is the physical, subtle and the real self. Any activity or life-style which does not support all these three elements is incomplete understanding. When we say garlic is good for heart it addresses only the physical aspect but at the same time it is harmful for the brain. Since brain is higher in nature a food which takes care of the heart but does not take care of the brain is not a balanced approach. Similarly, a food which retards our progress on realizing oneself is of much higher significance than merely the physical well-being. It is needless to say that a brain-dead person is a vegetable though he may have a healthy heart. Similarly, when we ignore the important aspect of human life then the whole understanding is unbalanced.

  6. colon cancer says:

    Yes, meat has a component that makes one prune to serious diseases. But of course, colon cancer is most commonly treated through the use of surgery. The doctor will remove the tumor, as well as some of the healthy tissue and lymph nodes in the area. If the cancer has not metastasized (spread to other areas), surgery may be the only treatment required. If the colon cancer is advanced and spread, however, a cure is unlikely. For those with a tumor that has deeply penetrated the colon wall or has spread to nearby lymph nodes, chemotherapy can be instrumental in preventing a recurrence of the cancer. Doctors may also determine that it is beneficial to introduce chemotherapeutic agents directly into the liver, as it is the place most likely to be affected by metastasis.

  7. leechsearch says:

    Meat is always good for you. In large quantities. The production of meat helps the environment and creates trillions of pounds of extra fertilizer for the world.

    You get healthier the more you eat meat, that’s why the USA wins the Olympics.

    • Someone smarter than you says:

      You are delusional and need to educate yourself. Hopefully soon.

    • John says:

      I’m all for eating meat but 1. USA does not wins the Olympics. Really? Out of all the events you win them all or even most? In fact it’s rarer you win them at all. Meat is NOT good in large quantities to eat as excess protein is just a waste. Animal breeding and slaughter houses wouldn’t have cruelty and mass slaughter in them if the obese stopped being so greedy and ate the recommended intake per day as opposed to “well damn, i’m hungry boy so dammit i’ma eat me like 3 steaks. 1 Steak is easily 1-2 serves of protein. Please, rather than opening your mouth and pointing your crap fueled thoughts at a forum, try to get some intelligence behind them hmmm?

  8. Funstondog says:

    Just read Eating Animals and all I can say go ahead and try and find out where your meat comes from that you eat. There’s a good reason why it’s nearly impossible . . .

    Everyone wants meat and they want it cheap – so good luck with the quality of the meat. My two cents.

  9. james says:

    Um, no. Animal protein has been strongly linked to cancer and shortened life spans. deal with it. As for meat consumption, promoting it only promotes industrial-scale cruelty, sad to say.

  10. Rerera says:

    @ Leechsearch You are totally incorrect… meat is good in small quantities, the mass production of meat has caused our planet to pollute even more because of factory farms CO2 and Methane have been producing in high amounts and antibiotcs used on animals which is bad for our planet and our health.

    You are also completely irrevelant stating that USA wins the Olympics because of that. People that are in the US Olympics normally go on a regulated diet that provides a balanced amount of healthy foods to the competetors not JUST meat. Please read your facts before you leave uneducated comments like this.

  11. rj says:

    @Rerera Obviously the person you are replying to was using sarcasm. Perhaps you should not take everything seriously before replying to someone.

  12. Gp says:

    All i know is my country is one of the leaders in obesity, and cigarette consumption, we eat meat like there is no tomorrow, yet we have one of the longest life expectancies in the world (top 20 , certainly higher than the us)

  13. Captain Howdy says:

    How much do you want to bet the author likes to eat decompossing corpses? A junkie will search out any justification to continue their habit.

  14. Merrisa says:

    Meat is not cancerous. Brine meat is.

  15. Merrisa says:

    you know what? A healthy diet does not need meat.

  16. James R. says:

    The reason you say “vegetarian” diets are no more healthier than non-vegetarian diets is because consuming dairy and eggs is every bit as bad for you as meat is, if not more. Compare vegan (or better yet, whole food, plant-based) diets to meat/dairy-based diets and see what you come up with.

  17. Dani says:

    Having a bad day.. erh, life rj?
    Perhaps you should just shut in general.

    When animals know they are going to die they release Adrenaline. This is toxic in your bodies when consumed.
    If you eat meat its out of habit, its how you were brought up. And if u were brought up differently it would be as disgusting as eating a human.
    Cancer is the karma for the holocaust that is the meat industry. If you eat meat you deserve to die as well, why would you think your life is any more important?

  18. Dani says:

    Please take my last comment back. It was meant for healthy meat eaters to help them change their habits but may be read by someone dying of cancer.

  19. john says:

    I agree meat is not the cause of cancer. Limit red meat intake and eat chicken and fish as your main source. And eat veggies as well. A Well balanced diet is the best diet one can do. Not a vegetarian diet. I am limiting my red meat I eat mainly chicken I like it better anyways. I eat vegetables as well on the side and I feel awesome! The vegetarian diet definately is not the healthiest by any means. Thats why most of them take supplements. If they ate a combination of meat and vegetables then they would have all the nutrients they need.

  20. marie hoarau says:

    maybe usa wins all the olympics because they put a lot of efforts and funds in the training of their athletes, the other countries maybe don’t have that same luxury

  21. S says:

    I would like to see a study that separates milk from meat. I would like to see studies that distinguish whether milk, raw milk, meat, organic meat, or raw meat can increase cancer.

    And lets be clear the milk protein was able to grow cancer (it didn’t cause cancer) the cancer was already injected into the rats. Also, all the rats that had low milk protein died, even without traces of cancer and all the rats with cancer on the high milk protein lived, interestingly enough.

  22. Vegan Hypocrisy 101 says:

    “You don’t mention that the Scandinavian countries have high rates of osteoporosis, most likely due to high animal protein consumption, including
    dairy.”

    Probably because they’re false claims with no basis whatsoever in peer-reviewed science.

    Which, of course, is why you didn’t/couldn’t provide a source.

  23. Vegan Hypocrisy 101 says:

    “The American Institue of Cancer Research (www.AICR.org.)has sponsored academic research that clearly reveals that the more red meat you eat the higher the incidence of colon, breast, prostate, pancreatic and other cancers. Betond that, Dean Ornish M.D. has also shown in his work at The Preventive Medical Research Institure that a the closer one eats to a vegatarian diet the better their health.”

    Then cite a source. Assuming you’re not lying about your claims, it stil doesn’t mean that your sources are not being deliberately dishonest to push an absolutist point of view, like the PCRM and Colin Campbell.

  24. Vegan Hypocrisy 101 says:

    “When we say garlic is good for heart it addresses only the physical aspect but at the same time it is harmful for the brain. Since brain is higher in nature a food which takes care of the heart but does not take care of the brain is not a balanced approach. Similarly, a food which retards our progress on realizing oneself is of much higher significance than merely the physical well-being. It is needless to say that a brain-dead person is a vegetable though he may have a healthy heart. Similarly, when we ignore the important aspect of human life then the whole understanding is unbalanced.”

    Yeah, we’re talking in peer-reviewed science here. Pease save the New Age pseudointellectual sermons for the Drum Circle.

  25. Vegan Hypocrisy 101 says:

    “Um, no. Animal protein has been strongly linked to cancer and shortened life spans. deal with it.”

    No it hasn’t. The only people that argue that it does are anti-science front groups and individuals like the PCRM and Colin Campbell, who do not submit their findings for peer-review and have been exposed many times over in he scientific and medical communities as being charlatans peddling lies and propaganda to further the extremist mentality of the Animal Rights cult movement. Deal with it.

    http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/385/

    “As for meat consumption, promoting it only promotes industrial-scale cruelty, sad to say.”

    The rest of us don’t live in your solipsistic, “Animal Factory”-boogeyman, propaganda-fed world, sad to say.

  26. Vegan Hypocrisy 101 says:

    “the mass production of meat has caused our planet to pollute even more because of factory farms CO2 and Methane have been producing in high amounts”

    There are plenty of other sources of higher pollution than the meat industry that aren’t as necessary to survival, and could be more easily and readily cut. You’re just trying to use environmental hysteria to guilt people into your line of thinking.

    “and antibiotcs used on animals which is bad for our planet and our health.”

    A sentiment not shared by any respected scientific organization, but one parroted by hippies and Green$ who were taught it by the multi-billion dollar Organic Food industry, which spends lots of money spreading misinformation like this claim in a bid to entice people to pay more money for lower quality and quantity of food.

    “Please read your facts before you leave uneducated comments like this.”

    Take your own advice.

  27. Thisisanawfularticle says:

    Whoa this article is absolute garbage, I would be fine with it if it were buried deep within the net but I am concerned that this biased information pops up first on the google search lists for vegan information. You say china has the highest rates of stomach cancer in the world but ignore the fact that there is a difference in cancer rates between the rich and poor areas of china by up to 40000%. Not to mention the difference in cancer rates between the united states and Kenya is 8200%. And yet when the same people migrate over within 3 generations the disease rates are the same. It’s not genetics or location. Same people on the same planet. It’s MEAT. They have come from an area of a once a year delicacy to an area where 25% of the calories are from animal products. And they get cancer. So take your biased doctors opinions elsewhere.

  28. Non hippy vegan says:

    I am quite senior now (52) and am reading the China Study. I am a chemical engineer and have used my brain well all my life. I care about the world and try to think things through. It is impossible to read all the scientific papers on the really big injustice issues (Human hunger, climate change/environmental degradation, human health and animal rights). All you can do is read up with an open mind and make your own judgement. Personally I have accepted the International Panel on Climate Change conclusions for a long time and am now starting to think there is very good evidence to say a vegetarian or vegan diet is an excellent option for humans. I realise that most of us will lean towards the studies and conclusions that suits them best. My current thinking is that the reason I ate meat for most of my life, is I was taught to accept it, and was addicted. I loved eating meat as much as anyone. To try the alternative I had to first break the addiction which I found surprisingly strong. I am now enjoying a vegan diet. I expect it might have some challenges ahead, but I have decided to give it a go and have nothing but good things to say so far.

  29. Jim says:

    I’m pretty convinced by the T. Colin Campbell book, but I don’t think the U.S. is going to give up eating turkey this Thanksgiving. I wondered whether Mr. Campbell had been cruel to dairy cows when he was growing up and his book and study is a try at getting his conscience to quiet down. It is very difficult these days with this stuff. I grew up eating lots of meat and about everything else too. I don’t like this part of life. It is confusing and also people can get fat – like me – I am obese they say, and it might be from using my computer too much instead of going outside and taking a walk more. That book the China Study is quite a bit of work and I think I just need to digest it, but it is almost too long if not. How come the Chinese-American restaurants don’t lower the amount of meat in their dishes like by 70% or so just be a good sport? I love most Chinese food. Hey, don’t eat too much meat and if you work at a meat factory or a bird farm, don’t try and have sex with the birds OK?

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