Risking your bacon

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Bacon

A phenomenon known as vegan bragging (my millennial cohort may be familiar with the hashtag #veganbrag) rose to prominence after the announcement that consumption of cured meats is linked to the development of colorectal cancer.

Reaction was decidedly mixed on social media, with some vowing to reduce or eliminate their consumption, and others offering their unwavering support for pulled pork, proclaiming their charcuterie plates would need to be pried from cold dead hands.

Chatham Mazda from Chatham Voice on Vimeo.

With the recent link reported by the WHO should we be giving up our, well, links (pun intended)? Like many aspects of health, it really comes down to scale.

Lets delve into what the numbers really mean.

The overall lifetime risk of colorectal cancer is about one in 20 (that risk changes by age, sex, family history, and a whole host of other factors). The change in absolute risk associated with the consumption of 50g of cured meat per day is 18%. So in a group of 100 cured meat avoiders on average we would expect five cases of colorectal cancer, and if we look at group of 100 cured-meat connoisseurs we would expect six or seven cases of colorectal cancer. Summarize that relationship in a less eye-glazing-inducing Grade 11 math type of way, according to the study, your absolute risk of getting colon cancer is about 5% if you don’t eat cured meats, and a whopping 6.25% if you eat cured meats.

Is this increased risk unacceptable, astronomical, or irrelevant? That is really for you to decide. For comparison, we can look at smoking and lung cancer. Those that smoke are 15-25 times more likely to develop lung cancer – that translates to a 1,500-2,500% increase risk. No, you are not reading that wrong.

Now certainly that’s not saying that the risk is meaningless – it is clear that like most diseases the development of colon cancer is complex.

It would be unfair to focus on one aspect of diet or lifestyle when promoting prevention. We know that obesity increases the risk of colon cancer by 10-30%, while smoking carries with it a 20-60% increased risk.

Of course there are steps you can take to mitigate your risk as well. Adequate fruit and vegetable intake will decrease your risk of colon cancer by 60%, while correcting a fibre-deficient diet will reduce risk by 40%.

There are lots of good reasons to focus on increasing vegetable intake, and both vegetarianism and veganism are legitimate dietary choices that when practiced well have demonstrable health benefits. It is clear that consumption of cured meats is a risk factor for colon cancer, but it is equally important to recognize the amplitude of that risk and decide for yourself what impact that will have on your dietary practices.

The good news is even if all of the risk reduction doesn’t spare you from the development of colon cancer, when caught early it is highly treatable. So know your risk, eat well, move more, and talk to your health care provider about appropriate screening schedules.

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