Although the overall risk of developing colorectal cancer is small, headlines citing an 18% increase in colorectal cancer risk from consuming one 50 g serving of processed meat per day (approximately one hotdog) have led to consumer concern – including the (incorrect) assumption that eating 5 portions of processed meat would therefore lead to a 90% certainty of developing colorectal cancer.
How often do we hear that we’re so much more unhealthy than our ancestors? That our modern chemical-laden diet is responsible for the fact that in 2010, the top three causes of death were heart disease, cancer and chronic airways disease? That if we only ate like our ancestors did (if you can’t pronounce it, it shouldn’t be in your food…) we’d have the secret to eternal life?
Let’s take a trip back to 1900 – the US contained 70 million US inhabitants, McKinley was president, and the first Hershey bar was introduced. Life was so much simpler without those pesky whipper-snapper millenials on social media and everybody lived till they were 95, passing with a smile on their face surrounded by their 17 children…or did they?
It’s a beautiful image – and an absolute fallacy. Life expectancy at birth in 1900 was 47.3 years. To put that into context, Michelle Obama, Keanu Reeves and Elle McPherson would already be dead, and Julia Roberts, Matt LeBlanc and Will Ferrell would be enjoying their final days of celebrity life. The low life expectancy was skewed by the high rates of infant mortality in 1900 – premature birth was the #11 most-common cause of death and up to 10% of infants died before their first birthday. Any child that made it past 5 years old had a pretty good chance of surviving – as long as disease didn’t set in – the top three killers in 1900 were pneumonia/flu, tuberculosis and heart disease.
Hold on… heart disease? Surely that’s a consequence of our modern, slothful, twinkie-guzzling lifestyle? Let’s move on to 1950, when most food was still organic, high-fructose corn syrup hadn’t yet been invented and the majority of beef and dairy cattle were grazed on pasture. Top three killers: heart disease, cancer, stroke.
There’s a reason why Mark Twain’s saying “lies, damned lies and statistics” gets quoted so often. In this case, the data is true. However, when we look at the statistics, i.e. the % of people killed by heart disease or cancer, those have indeed gone up. Why? Because very few people die of pneumonia, flu or TB. If we express something on a percentage basis, a decline in one factor means an increase in another. Simple 3rd-grade math. I hate to point out the obvious, but we’re all going to die – and there will always be a cause.
Many enthusiasts for the “Paleo” diet like to suggest that it must be a healthy lifestyle, because the average lifespan for our ancestors was the same as it is now – providing that they didn’t die in accidents, war or from infection. Way to go for those few ancestors who stayed in their cave and didn’t get attacked by a wildebeest! All that actually suggests is that a human body has a genetic potential for life of 75-80 years. Europeans who died from the Black Death in 1348-1350 weren’t genetically programmed to live shorter lives, they were just unlucky enough to run up against the microorganism Yersinia pestis. We can’t eliminate specific causes of death that don’t suit our theory to “show” that one lifestyle is more healthy than other – everything that we do, every single day will have some positive or negative effect on our eventual lifespan.
We’re lucky enough to live in a society where we have effective sanitation, a wide variety of nutritional choices, antibiotics, vaccines, x-rays and prenatal vitamins. In the US, nowadays only 6 babies die per 1,000 births compared to ~100 per 1,000 births in 1900. Average life expectancy is 78.1 years. If I were to follow the activist “correlation = causation” logic I could point out that in the past 114 years we’ve seen the introduction of cell phones; nuclear bombs; GMO-crops; rbST for dairy cattle; implants and antibiotics for beef cattle; and corn-fed beef… so these technologies must make us live longer!! Hooray!! Instead, I’ll just be thankful that I will be giving birth within the next week in a world where we have a safe, effective food supply and that my baby will have a far better chance of surviving than her great-grandparents did. Thank goodness for technology.