We often see news headlines claiming that certain foods, such as red meat, may be “hazardous” to health. But what do headlines like “hazard” or “risk” really mean and what do you really need to know about them? Let’s decode what these headlines mean and explain the difference between a hazard and a risk.
What does “hazard” mean?
A hazard is a potential source of harm or adverse health effect on a person under any circumstance. We deal with hazards in our life every day by walking across busy streets, driving and playing sports. Hazards don’t tell you what the possibility or probability of harm is – they simply answer the question, “could, under any circumstances, this activity cause harm?” Water, a compound we need to survive, could be a hazard – but simply calling it a hazard doesn’t provide the context people need to reduce their likelihood of harm.
What does “risk” mean?
Risk is the likelihood that a person may be harmed or suffer adverse health effects if exposed to a hazard. So while a hazard classifies anything that could be a source of harm, the risk puts that hazard into perspective to help people understand the possible impact of being exposed to it. When recommendations are made about important topics like diet and health, it’s necessary to consider hazard and risk together, to understand the complete story.
Hazard vs Risk, Explained
In this video, Dr. Stuart Phillips explains the difference between a hazard and a risk when it comes to cancer research.
How is risk calculated?
In order to characterize risk, there are a variety of factors considered, including:
- how often someone is exposed to a hazardous thing or condition
- how someone is exposed – e.g. eating, drinking, breathing
- the amount of the exposure
Risk also has to take into consideration “confounders.” These factors are variables which can distort the true risk. For example, in the summer months people eat more ice cream, but there are also more shark attacks. While both ice cream and shark attacks may be related to the summer months, they are not related to each other. They can be considered as confounders and their association leads to a false conclusion.
What do these risks mean for health recommendations?
To calculate risks when it comes to health, all of the available science has to be collected, analyzed and considered before ever making broad recommendations. The different types of studies reviewed are also important. One type of science often looked at is what is known as epidemiological research (or epi research, for short). Epidemiological studies look at populations to investigate potential associations (aka relative risks) between aspects of health (say heart disease or cancer) and diet, lifestyle, and demographics or other factors. Epidemiologic studies are observational in nature – meaning that they only identify associations and can be helpful in generating hypothesis but cannot prove cause and effect. Intervention studies, such as randomized control trials, are considered gold standard evidence because they can test cause and effect. There are several examples in nutrition where intervention studies have disproved hypotheses generated by observational studies.
Should we stop eating certain foods, such as red meat, if we see a headline saying that it’s hazardous to our health?
No—lean red meat, including beef, is a nourishing food that plays an important role in a healthy diet. It’s unrealistic to isolate a single food, including red meat, as a cause or a cure for any single disease. Our total health is determined by a number of factors, including things outside of our control such as age, genetics, socioeconomic characteristics, even where we grew up. Of the things we can control, research shows, the most important factors to focus on are not to smoke, to maintain a healthy body weight, to stay physically active and to eat a healthy, balanced diet of nutrient-rich foods in moderation. And most people eat nutrient-rich beef in moderation already: Americans consume 1.7 ounces of beef daily, on average, and today’s leaner beef offers people the flavor they crave and the nutrition they need.
What does this all mean for you?
Nutrition is complicated and we love to talk about it. But it’s not easy to explain the complexity of food and health in a headline or a tweet. If you have questions about what you should be eating as part of an overall healthy lifestyle in order to decrease your risk of chronic disease, the best advice is to follow a balanced diet and visit with your doctor, registered dietitian or other healthcare professional who can develop an overall healthy lifestyle plan that’s right for you.