Red meat and cancer

Red meat: a healthy food?
Red meat: a healthy food?

There is a story in the news today about how people think red meat contains more fat that is actually the case.

This comes from MeatMatters, which is funded by the meat industry.

So it is not surprising that they have used the survey to suggest that red meat is actually healthier than people think.

But regardless of the fat content, there is convincing evidence that red and processed meat increase risk of bowel cancer.

This is why we recommend that people aim to limit consumption of red meat to 500g a week (cooked weight) and to avoid eating processed meat.

We gave the Press Association a quote along these lines when they were writing the story.

And our quote led to the following response from Chris Lamb at MeatMatters:

“If you eat too much of anything, you are potentially doing harm to yourself. It is misleading to solely link eating a lot of meat to cancer.

“Even if people argued we were glossing over the dangers of eating meat, similarly they are glossing over the benefits of eating meat, of which there are an awful lot.”

We would agree with Chris that eating a lot of red and processed meat is not the only dietary factor linked to cancer risk.

This is why our recommendation on meat is part of a wider set of recommendations that include maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, eating plenty of plant foods and not having too much alcohol or salt.

Taken as a whole, we estimate that about a third of the most common cancers in the UK could be prevented through having a healthy diet, being regularly physically active and maintaining a healthy weight.

But while meat is only a part of that, it is not insignificant. For example, scientists estimate about 3,800 bowel cancer cases could be prevented in the UK every year if we all ate less than 70g of processed meat a week. This is roughly the equivalent of three rashers of bacon.

In terms of the meat industry “glossing over the dangers of eating meat”, this is not the wording I would use.

But I do think that when the meat industry has an online guide for health professionals called “meat and health” and does not mention the link with cancer, it is not putting across an entirely balanced picture.

But I suppose this is not surprising. To state the obvious, the meat industry’s income depends on people buying meat. So it can hardly be expected to put across a balanced picture on meat and health.

This is where organisations like World Cancer Research Fund come in. The fact that we are funded almost entirely by the generous donations of members of the public means that we can give advice that is balanced.

And I disagree with Chris that we gloss over the nutritional benefits of red meat.

Actually, we agree red meat does have nutritional benefits and, for example, we mention this in our Recommendations booklet.

The nutritional benefits of red meat are the reason we do not recommend people give it up altogether but instead that they limit their consumption.

And just to put this into context, our red meat recommendation is not especially difficult to achieve. A medium portion of roast beef or lamb might have a cooked weight of 90g, which means you could have it five times a week and still meet our recommendation.

But this is not the case with processed meats, which include bacon, ham and some sausages. The evidence shows eating them has a greater increase on your bowel cancer risk than fresh red meat without having any extra nutritional benefits.

This is why we recommend that people avoid eating them.

But, like all our recommendations, it is not a question of all or nothing. Making even a small step in the right direction is still worth doing.

So if you eat a bacon sandwich every day and do not want to give them up completely, cutting down to a couple of times a week is still something positive you can do for your health.


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