I am on record saying that I do not care what nutritionists tell me. In general, it seems to change over time. And I’m just not willing to change my behavior about something as integral and enjoyable as eating in order to live a couple years longer. I might think differently if all I wanted to do is eat ice cream. But I have a varied diet, because I like it that way. There have been many problems with how I live my life, but eating is one of the few that seem to be in order. Still, when people start telling me that bacon is as bad for me as cigarette smoking, I can’t help but pay attention.
Of course, if you believe that bacon is as bad as cigarette smoking, I hope you are very rich and interested in some incredibly rare “diamonds” that I have for sell. But bacon causes cancer? I can’t say that I find this surprising. The question is how big the effect is. I think I’m like most people: a little danger would make it even more delicious. So where are we on the goodness scale for bacon and cancer? Apparently, all the World Health Organization is saying is that “the links between processed meat and certain types of cancer are clear and well-established.”
The good news is that bacon gives you colorectal cancer. The survival rates are quite good if it is caught early: 92% if in stage I. Even at stage IV, it is 11%. Compare this to lung cancer, where the stage I survival rate is 49%, and the stage IV is 1%. So if you have to get cancer, it is better to get it in our bowels than your lungs. But still: who wants to get cancer? And I don’t like the idea of doctors going down there and cutting.
Another way to look at it is how likely different kinds of cancer are. We all have a 4.84% chance of getting colorectal cancer in our lifetimes. That’s pretty common kind of cancer. But we have a 7.43% chance of getting lung cancer in our lifetimes. So that’s over 50% higher a chance of getting lung cancer. But it gets more stark than that. According to the WHO, eating bacon increases your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. So instead of a 4.84% chance of cancer in your lifetime, you have a 5.71% chance. It’s still about the same.
Meanwhile, smoking makes you 25 times more likely to get lung cancer. Let’s have a little fun with this. (Note: that means math!) Between 10% and 15% of lung cancer deaths are non-smokers — let’s be as charitable as we can be to smoking and use 15%. By combining the equation that comes from this and the data from the paragraph above, we see that the chance the getting lung cancer if you aren’t a smoker is just 0.35% in your whole life. If you are a smoker, it is 8.68%. That’s shocking! If you smoke, please stop! Unless you are Antonin Scalia, in which case: puff away!
So what we see here is that not eating bacon lowers your risk of cancer — but not by a whole lot. But not smoking decreases your cancer risk enormously. But this study is with regard to eating two slices of bacon per day. That strikes me as excessive. I know there are people who eat that much bacon, but that is not me. I pretty much only eat bacon for one thing: BLTs. And I have them perhaps once a month. And I wonder about this. I suspect that someone who smokes one or two cigarettes per day doesn’t have much of an elevated risk of cancer. The problem is that nicotine is highly addictive and everyone I know who smokes, smokes a lot. Is the occasional BLT going to hurt you? I doubt it.
But this all comes back to my approach to eating, which is that you need to mix it up. This comes naturally to me. I get bored — generally after obsessing over something. But I am willing to increase my lifetime risk of colorectal cancer by 0.87 percentage points for the sake of bacon. In fact, I now think I’m not eating enough.