Rob Lyons wonders why everyone is frying their minds worrying about bacon.
A huge new report prepared for the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) suggests that a third of cancers could be prevented by changes to diet and exercise patterns.
According to the WCRF report, being overweight is the most important avoidable risk of developing cancer, but the consumption of red meat – particularly cured and processed meats like bacon – is also highlighted as a cause of cancer, along with alcohol, sugary drinks, salt and dietary supplements (eg, vitamin pills). The report’s authors suggest taking at least 30 minutes of vigorous exercise per day, or an hour of moderate exercise. They also suggest that children should be breastfed for at least six months to help avoid obesity in later life.
Professor Martin Wiseman, one of the authors, said: ‘Cancer is not a fate, it is a matter of risk, and you can adjust those risks by how you behave. It is very important that people feel that they are in control of what they do.’
Things are not quite as simple as they first appear. Taking the report’s recommendations at face value, only some of them are susceptible to adult intervention. For example, you can hardly control whether you were breastfed or not. Losing weight is not too difficult, but very few people manage to maintain substantial weight loss – hence, the authors suggest not gaining weight in the first place. On behalf of the fatties of the world, can I just say: ‘Thanks a lot.’
Other recommendations seem rather ridiculous. Avoiding processed meats, like bacon, might somehow slightly reduce your risk of getting cancer (in old age, most likely), but since the bacon butty is also the nation’s favourite sandwich, it also means foregoing a substantial personal pleasure. The same applies to alcohol. Limiting yourself to one or two drinks per day allows no leeway to go out and get inebriated with friends. And doesn’t this message rather contradict the idea of having a couple of ‘heart healthy’ glasses of wine in the evening?
But the report shouldn’t be taken at face value. Many of the risk associations found in the report are pretty weak or inconsistent. Even where they are stronger, the absolute risk created by any particular foodstuff or lifestyle choice would appear to be small. And many of the recommendations simply parrot advice that has become fashionable among public health professionals rather than convincingly making the case for lifestyle change.
For example, the suggestion that breastfeeding is associated with lower body weight in later life, and that lower body weight is associated with lower risk of cancer, makes the breastfeeding-cancer link somewhat tenuous. To illustrate this: if 10 per cent of people will avoid obesity by being breastfed, and not being obese reduces your cancer risk by 10 per cent, then the overall benefit of breastfeeding would be just one per cent (10 per cent of 10 per cent). Unsurprisingly, the association between breastfeeding and cancer in later life is unproven.
As it happens, the link between obesity and mortality found in other studies seems to bear little relation to the recommendations on body weight found in the WCRF report. Overall mortality rates compared to body mass index (BMI) suggest that there is little difference in your chance of dying whether your BMI is 21 (at the low end of the ‘normal’ range) or 32 (at the low end of ‘obesity’). Obesity even seems to have a protective effect in some respects.
The links between lifestyle and disease (with the exception of active smoking and heavy drinking) are pretty tenuous. But that doesn’t stop committees of experts getting together, making judgements about lifestyle and then presenting their ‘authoritative’ views to the world. Who asked them to do this? Who chose the experts? Are the loudest voices the ones with the biggest axes to grind, or the strongest obsessions?
Perhaps the most pertinent statistic is this: many of the behaviours and habits mentioned in the report are the result of recent trends. We are asked to undo lifestyle changes made in the last two or three decades for our health. Yet, in recent years we’ve been living longer than before. The two trends – lifestyle and longevity – may be unrelated, or our increasingly longevity might be in spite of our bad habits. But these lifestyles factors can’t be that bad if we’re living longer, healthier lives, can they?
The best that can be said about such a report is: ‘everything in moderation – including moderation’. On which basis, I shall toddle off for a bacon butty. I promise I’ll only eat one…
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
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