Eating Red Meat Just Once a Day Ups Bowel Cancer Risk, Study Finds

A new comprehensive study finds that even restraining ourselves to just one portion of red meat per day can be a bowel cancer risk.

Researchers analyzed data from the UK Biobank research project, an initiative that aims to improve health data by following the “the health and well-being of 500,000 volunteer participants”. Publishing in the “International Journal of Epidemiology“, the researchers used standard analysis models to look at various factors, including levels of red meat and processed meat intake and the risk of developing cancer. They also looked at variables like alcohol intake—which is another known colorectal cancer risk—and other such factors.

Over the average 5.7 years that they tracked participants, a total of 2609 cases of colorectal cancer occurred. Those who ate an average of 76g of red or processed meat per day—which is considered the “safe” recommended limit in the UK—saw their risk of bowel cancer increase by a fifth compared to those who who ate an average of 21 grams a day.

That risk increased by 20 percent with every 25g serving of processed meat that the participant added. This is roughly equivalent to adding just one extra thin slice of bacon. The increase went up 19 percent for every 50g slice of unprocessed meat, for example a relatively thick slice of roast beef.

The researchers also found that alcohol consumption greatly affected how likely someone appeared to be of developing colorectal cancers. They found an apparent 24 percent risk increase in the heaviest drinkers compared to those who drank the least.

Meanwhile, those who ate a lot of fiber from breads and cereals were less likely to be diagnosed with colorectal cancer.

We have known for some time now that processed red meats—like ham, bacon and sausages—are potentially cancer-causing. The World Health Organization has even labelled them ”carcinogenic to humans“. This study corroborates that classification.  Until now lean red meat has not been scrutinized in quite the same way.

This latest study does not change WHO classifications, but it does add to a body of evidence which seems to show that red meat of any kind contributes to cancer risk. While the risk was not the same, it was still significant enough to be a substantial risk.

Of course, it does not necessarily follow that because you eat red meat you will get colorectal cancer. This study does not prove directly that red meat and processed meat consumption “trigger” cancer. For one, we know that cancer’s triggers are multifaceted, and secondly we can only infer cancer risk through studies like this. However, when taken alongside other evidence this does seem to suggest that we need to more carefully control our red meat consumption.

The researchers are clear that they do not necessarily believe that government guidelines on meat consumption are wrong. The problem with zeroing in on figures like this is it ignores the roles that meat consumption can play in a diet. For example, meat is a good source of iron and protein. Compared to alcohol—which has zero nutritional benefits—its cancer risk is not the same precisely because it can play a role in a balanced diet. However, the researchers emphasize that choosing lean red meats over processed red meat and consuming those red meats only once or twice a week at most may be key in managing cancer risk.

“A small amount of processed meat seems to have the same effect as a large amount of red meat,” professor Tim Key, co-authored of the study, told CNN.

Key puts the findings in perspective: “Our results strongly suggest that people who eat red and processed meat four or more times a week have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who eat red and processed meat less than twice a week.”

Cancer Research UK is one of the backers of this study. Dr. Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health information, echoes that the recommended limit of processed meat and red meat consumption is not necessarily wrong, but rather are meant as a guidepost: “The government guidelines on red and processed meat are general health advice and this study is a reminder that the more you can cut down beyond this, the more you can lower your chances of developing bowel cancer.”

Again, it’s important to understand that there can be several overlapping factors that lead us to develop cancer, and some of those are biological and out of our control. Where diet does play a part, we may seek to make changes accordingly, and that is a good idea as we know that a plant-based diet that is high in dietary fiber, legumes and other healthful foods appears to reduce cancer risks of all kinds.

This study isn’t a game-changer in terms of our understanding of red meat risk, but it nudges us to remember that while the odd bit of red meat in our diet—if that is our choice—won’t hurt us, red meat probably shouldn’t be our “go-to” food on a daily basis.

Photo credit: Getty Images.

35 comments

Shirley S
Shirley S29 days ago

Ugh!

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Martha P
Martha Pabout a month ago

Never again

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Jeramie D
Jeramie Dabout a month ago

So glad I don't eat meat

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Leo C
Leo Custerabout a month ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Marija M
Marija Mohoricabout a month ago

I admit - once in two weeks, while cooking my favourite soup...

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohnabout a month ago

Many thanks to you !

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Patricia A
Past Member about a month ago

thanks for posting

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Janet B
Janet Babout a month ago

Thanks

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Debbi W
Debbi Wabout a month ago

I may have beef twice in one week and not again for three weeks. I used to beat beef five times a week but gave that up a couple decades ago.

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Angeles M
Angeles Madrazoabout a month ago

Ooooops! lGo vegan! Thank you

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