Red meat and bowel cancer

Last updated: October 2015

Red meat and bowel cancerBowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in Western countries.  It is the third most common cancer in men and the second most common cancer in women.  Overall, 84% of people diagnosed with bowel cancer are aged 60 or over, suggesting that increasing age is the single biggest factor in its development.  Various lifestyle-related factors are also thought to have a significant impact on the risk of bowel cancer.   

Smoking, physical activity, excessive body weight, alcohol consumption and intake of red and processed meat have all been the focus of many studies in this area.  However, other than in the case of smoking, it has been difficult to tease out the exact impact of individual diet and lifestyle factors.   This is because they are difficult to measure and tend to ‘cluster’ together.  As a result it is perhaps best that they are considered collectively as tools that can assist in reducing risk of bowel cancer. 

What do we know? 

Establishing a link between any dietary factor and cancer is difficult.  Cancer develops over a long period of time so it is not possible to assess immediate effects of certain foods on the risk of cancer.

Some studies have linked high meat intakes with increased risk of bowel cancer but there are a number of key problems with these.  Some measure meat consumption at intervals over a period of time usually remote from the occurrence of the disease many years later.  They often rely on questionnaires and do not consistently define the types of meat and the amounts of meat that are actually consumed.  As a result the findings are not clear cut.  

Risk factors vary between men and women and with height, weight and age.  Also as we are living longer our chances of developing bowel cancer increase.  All this makes it impossible to single out one food group such as red meat as a cause.

No direct cause and effect between red and processed meat and bowel cancer has ever been established.

What can I do to reduce my risk of bowel cancer?

Choosing a healthier lifestyle is the best way of reducing risk of bowel cancer.  This includes:

  • Stopping smoking
  • Being sun smart
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Drinking alcohol sensibly
  • Eating healthily
  • Being active

Maintenance of a healthy body weight and increased intakes of a variety of fruit and vegetables and of fibre from a variety of food sources, are recommended for preventing bowel cancer. 

Recommendations for red meat intake:

The Department of Health highlight that meat is a good source of protein, and vitamins and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc and B vitamins. They also point out that it is one of the main sources of vitamin B12, which is only found in foods from animals, such as meat and milk.  

For these reasons the Department of Health do not recommend we exclude meat from the diet as there is no scientific justification to do so.  However, they recommend we choose healthier meat and meat products, such as lean cuts of meat and leaner mince, where possible.   They also recommend that we consider our frequency of consumption and portion size.  

How much red meat do we consume in the UK?

Overall our intake of red meat in the UK diet has generally fallen during the last few decades.  In the UK the average total red meat consumption for men is around 88 grams per day. For women, it is around 52 grams per day. This gives an average of 70 grams per day for all adults.

Since average daily adult consumption of red meat in the UK is 70g, those who eat more than 90 grams are considered to have a relatively high intake. It is now recommended that these people cut down, so that their consumption is in line with average consumption.

According to UK dietary surveys, 4 in 10 men and 1 in 10 women eat more than 90g of red and processed meat a day.  Therefore most people have no cause for concern and do not need to make any changes to their present consumption patterns.  

More than 90g of cooked weight per day is considered to be a large amount. Cooked meat weighs about 70% of its uncooked weight, mainly because it contains less water. So 90g of cooked meat is equivalent to about 130g of uncooked meat. 

Examples of a 70g portion of meat are (1):

  •  One medium portion shepherds pie
  • Two standard beef burgers
  • One lamb chop
  • Two slices of roast lamb, beef or pork
  • Three slices of ham

As a further guide: 1 rasher of bacon 25g, 1 slice of ham 23g, 1 small grilled sausage 20g, 1 large grilled sausage 40g, rump steak 102g, slice of pâté 40g

In Conclusion

The best way of reducing risk of bowel cancer is by choosing a healthier lifestyle.  There is no scientific justification to exclude meat from our diets.  Meat and meat products make a significant contribution to nutrient intake and consumed in moderation can be enjoyed as part of a healthy balanced.

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(1) Department of Health 2011.