Health promotion campaigns have been a part of the UK healthcare landscape for many years. Since the birth of the National Health Service, the government has been promoting healthy lifestyles and actions that directly benefit UK citizens through various forms of advertisement (“Cover your coughs and sneezes. Don’t spread diseases”). One can only speculate how many lives have been saved by such health awareness drives as Act FAST which educated many Brits on how to spot the warning signs of a stroke. 

Government-led health promotion campaigns like Act FAST and SMOKEFREE have been directly responsible for saving countless lives here in the UK; they’re the schemes behind many of the health attitude changes. It comes as a surprise then to see such a low-level of public engagement from the government surrounding the dangers of carcinogenic meat consumption. 

Today we look at the evidence that supports the adoption of a reduced processed meat (and red meat to a lesser extent) diet and discuss the potential benefits of going one step further by becoming a full vegetarian or vegan. 

The Case Against Meat Eating Is Growing Stronger 

In 2015, Europe was aghast with news of processed meats being upped by the World Health Organisation (WHO) into the highest category of classification for carcinogenic products. Suddenly, the effects of consuming artisanal meats and everyday staples like bacon had been aligned with the detrimental effects of smoking. Italian magazine Focus reported: “it was known for some time that red meat and sausages could be potentially carcinogenic. What has changed? The certainty of the classification.” 

WHO followed up their announcement with a brief Q&A to provide those concerned with more clarification: “This category [Group 1 – in which processed meat became part of in 2015] is used when there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans. In other words, there is convincing evidence that the agent causes cancer.”  

The carcinogenic qualities found in many processed meats refer to a particular component added to allow “the bacteria responsible for cured flavour to emerge quicker,” reported The Guardian. Nitrates are the offender and, according to reports, they combine with certain organic compounds in red meat to form cancer-causing N-nitroso compounds. By chance, these compounds also give processed meat its ‘natural’ rosy-pink hue. The Guardian report goes onto say that these additives are not essential for flavour; in fact, Parma Ham producers in Italy “made a collective decision to remove nitrates from their products and revert to using only salt.”  

It’s been almost three years since WHO’s re-classification of processed meat; why is the media still the loudest voice crying for a change in our consumption attitudes?  

The Case for Going Veggie Grows Stronger 

The benefits of becoming a vegetarian for personal and societal causes are extensive. As well as severely reducing food-related carbon emissions (by an estimated 60%), the BBC reported that “we would see a global mortality reduction of 6-10%, thanks to a lessening of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and some cancers,” if the entire world became vegetarian by 2050. The report went onto say that the impact of reduced medical costs could save “2-3% of global gross domestic product.” Additionally, WHO concluded that every 50g portion of processed meat increased the risk of various terminal and non-terminal illnesses, reported the Guardian.   

The benefits of encouraging a diet that reduces meat (particularly processed meat) and increases vegetable consumption seem like a win-win: citizens live longer and healthier lives, and the stretched NHS budget is reduced. So why are the UK government not promoting a drastic change in behaviour? The aggressive marketing campaign and subsequent sin tax on tobacco have halved the number of adult smokers in the UK according to Cancer Research UK. Are we to expect the government to implement a similar plan soon? 

Are you interested in learning more about health promotion? New courses are coming to UKCBC; contact our course advisors to find out more.

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