Why Australians aren’t going to cut down on bacon

Stop the presses, folks. And in particular, stop devouring that bacon and egg roll.

No less a body than the World Health Organisation has come out to warn us that sausages, bacon, ham, salami and other processed meats aren’t good for us. The very idea that we should be cutting down on this stuff! My jaw would have hit the floor if my belly hadn’t helpfully gotten in the way.

Admittedly, the idea that these meats are definitively linked to bowel cancer is something of a revelation, while the prospect that red meat may not be doing us any favours either is a significant shock to a country that has long been told that a lamb roast was worth giving up dinner with Tom Cruise – a proposition that seems more convincing the more Alex Gibney documentaries I watch.

But fear not. Australian election day, in which we swap the minor inconvenience of voting for the chance to devour a sausage lovingly wrapped in supermarket-brand white bread by an apron-wearing dad at the local school, is safe.

Because while the boffins may have proven that processed meats increase our risk of bowel cancer, it remains likely that anybody who regularly consumes bacon and sausages will succumb to heart disease long before a tumour has the chance to form in their colon.

It was no surprise to see Barnaby Joyce rushing out of the gate to condemn the WHO’s advice as condemning Australians to living in caves.

“I don’t think that we should get too excited that if you have a sausage you’re going to die of bowel cancer because you’re not,” he said, which was highly reassuring unless you’re the kind of person who tends to listen to the considered opinion of medical experts.

The only thing that might have prompted a more instantaneous response from the Agriculture Minister is if a Hollywood star tried to bring unauthorised dogs into the country. Apparently spoiled canines represent a clear and present danger to our biosecurity, whereas foodstuffs that have been proven to cause cancer are an inviolable part of our way of life.

I’m not sure, though, how the Minister would react to a Hollywood star who wanted to import dogmeat sausages.

What’s more, if the World Health Organisation feels that a return to cave-dwelling would make for a healthier lifestyle, I’d be eager to hear about it, and presumably so would the residents of Coober Pedy.

Minister Joyce’s reaction, though, will probably mirror that of most Australians. We know we aren’t really meant to eat that stuff on a regular basis. The health-conscious among us will probably move from eating processed meats sometimes to eating them occasionally. I can’t imagine Christmas lunch without ham, but sure – when I go to a sandwich counter, I’ll probably go for chicken instead, or smoked salmon, or even – shock horror, a vegetarian option.

But our smallgoods tycoons can sleep comfortably in their beds before getting up for another hard day of whatever they do to make sausages, which, I am very clear, I absolutely do not want to know.

We Australians do not tend to choose healthy options, even when we know perfectly well what they are. We are most likely to be killed by preventable conditions, to the perpetual despair of public health authorities. Last year, the president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners had this to say:

Many of the leading causes of death in Australians could have been impacted by implementing simple lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake and maintaining a healthy weight.

Bet you didn’t get through it without yawning, am I right?!

Compared to losing weight, cutting down on booze and generally not eating unhealthy crap, the impact of cured meats is likely to be fairly minimal. As Cancer Research UK have pointed out in an infographic that has been doing the rounds today (along with a detailed summary of the results), everyone giving up smoking would have a far greater public health impact than everyone giving up cured meat and processed meats, simply because bowel cancer is far less prevalent than lung cancer.

In other words, these meats increase the risk of something that isn’t hugely risky to begin with, making up (in the UK, at least) 3 per cent of all cancers, whereas smoking-related lung cancer is 19 per cent.

The kind of people who pay attention to public health messages probably don’t eat much processed meat already, with the possible exception of lean ham, or red meat for that matter. These people will probably cut down on what little they consume.

The rest of us will go on, in blissful oblivion, until some preventable lifestyle disease knocks us over. Because whether consciously or otherwise, most of us have decided that we’d rather have a shorter life without worrying about staying healthy. Our approach seems to be Life, Be In It, But For A Relatively Brief Period Of Time.

No doubt processed and red meats will remain part of this picture for most of us, no matter what those exasperated public health experts tell us. Because if we wanted to listen, there are far more impactful lifestyle changes we could be making than cutting down on the odd rasher of bacon at breakfast time.

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