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Red Meat 1, World Health Organization 0
Number of deaths attributable to eating processed meat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO): 34,000
Number of people struck by lightning annually: 240,000
And yet the WHO generated a huge headline by saying that eating red and processed meat could increase your risk of colon cancer by 18%.
Let us assume that they are right. (And we will let the trade associations debate them on the scientific merits of that 34,000 figure.) Even if they are right, this is a perfect example of confusing an increase in relative risk of one disease with absolute risk of dying. To use the lightning example, you probably have a 1-in-a-billion chance of being struck by lightning if a thunderclap is audible but the sky above is clear. Some states close public pools when that happens. If the sky above is clear but you can see lightning in the distance, your odds of getting struck may jump to 1-in-100,000,000. That’s a 10-times relative increase, but only a 9-in-a-billion absolute increase. So these states inconvenience parents and fidgety kids for basically no reason other than misunderstanding relative and absolute risk.
To make matters worse, the WHO conflates the risk of smoking and asbestos with red meat. Both the former cause perhaps something like an 18% increase in age-adjusted death rates in total, not an 18% increase in one form of cancer. The difference? Probably about a thousand times in total, unvarnished, absolute risk.
Yes, I know it’s not always about me, but this is exactly what Quizzify teaches. Newscasters who had taken the Quizzify quiz (and relative-vs-absolute risk is in the advanced level…but they are newscasters so they should get to that level) would have led with the headline: “WHO Demonstrates No Understanding of Health” instead of “You Could Die from Eating Red Meat”.
That’s it for now. Funny thing, I used to be a quasi-vegetarian because I was concerned about the impact of red meat and processed meats on my colon cancer risk. But anyone who understands health research would read this the same way I do: it’s OK to live on the edge. Don’t deprive yourself of red meat for this reason. I myself am headed out for a burger. Not just any burger but a bacon burger. In the immortal words of the great philosopher Sammy Davis Jr., I’ve got a lot of living to do.