Red meat and cancer

Last updated: October 2015

Red meat and cancerIn the human body cells are renewed and replaced constantly.  This is carefully regulated by a complex system of checks and balances.  However, over time alterations or damage can occur.  This can result in uncontrolled growth and the beginning of cancer.  There are many types of cancer but all start as a single cell that has lost control of its normal growth and replication processes.  

The specific causes of the majority of cancers are unknown.  Researchers have determined that cancer is caused by many different factors.  It involves a complex interaction of genetic, lifestyle, infectious and environmental factors that usually take several years or decades to progress.  Early diagnosis and better treatment have improved survival from most cancers.

Lifestyle factors include smoking, sun exposure, excess body weight, excessive alcohol consumption, low physical activity and poor diet.  Researchers have tried to determine the role of diet in cancer. The type of cancer most studied in relation to red meat has been 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.

Although some studies have linked high meat intakes with increased risk of bowel cancer there are a number of key problems with this.  The definition of red meat and processed meat are not uniform across studies and methods for measuring intakes vary.   As a result 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 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 cancer has ever been established.   Any association between red meat and other cancers has proved inconclusive.  

What can I do to reduce my risk of cancer?

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

  • Stopping smoking
  • Being sun smart
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Drinking alcohol sensibly
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • 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 cancer prevention. 

Recommendations for red meat intake:

The Department of Health highlight that meat is a good source of protein, and contains 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; or
  • 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 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 diet.

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(1) Department of Health 2011.