Link between red meat and bowel cancer is stronger than ever

red meat and bowel cancerCC: Armando Ascorve at Unsplash

The connection between red meat and bowel cancer is common knowledge. A new study from Oxford University now demonstrates that the link is stronger than we thought. Adding a daily dose of red or processed meat to your diet may significantly increase your colon cancer risk. The latest research suggests it’s possibly advisable to avoid processed meat altogether.

What is the connection between red meat and bowel cancer?

The study in question took place over a six-year period in the UK. It analyzed health data from 500,000 participants. Around 2,069 developed bowel cancer, and the risk of cancer forming appears to grow higher with the amount of red meat a person eats.

Scientists in the research team investigating red meat and bowel cancer found that of those who eat 21g per day, 40 in 10,000 develop the disease. When participants ate 76g per day, 48 in 10,000 developed the disease. Eating just three slices of bacon per day rather than one increased the participants’ risk by 20%.

It’s important to note that the connection between red meat and bowel cancer varies according to the type. For example, the WHO classes bacon and sausages as cancer-causing carcinogens. Pork and beef fall into the ‘probably causes cancer’ category.

Why does red meat cause bowel cancer?


There are lots of myths surrounding the connection between red meat and bowel cancer. For example, those who prefer a meat-free diet claim that it’s the animal fat that’s the issue. This confusion may stem from the fact that being overweight increases your risk of cancer. However, being fat and eating fat are two different things.

A more reliable theory is that the connection between red meat and bowel cancer has something to do with nitrite and nitrate preservatives. These preservatives keep meats such as bacon, sausages, and tinned meat from perishing quickly. This could explain why processed meats have a stronger link with bowel cancer than other types. One study from Sweden highlights how eating nitrogen-based preservatives increases your risk of cancer.

Finally, there’s some evidence suggesting that the haem present in red meat — iron, in other words — causes bowel cancer. When the body breaks the haem down, it releases nitrogen-based compounds. Much like the preservatives manufacturers use to maintain processed foods, these compounds could explain the link between red meat and bowel cancer.

Do all types of meat cause cancer?

No, it’s a good idea to recognize that not all types of meat cause cancer. Current trends toward vegan diets are propelling such misinformation, which isn’t useful if you want to eat a healthy meat-based diet.

However, present guidelines focusing on red meat intake are equally unhelpful. Depending on where you get your information from, you can eat 70g per day and remain safe. However, as the study demonstrates, eating 40g or less is more realistic.

So, if the link between red meat and bowel cancer worries you, how can you tackle the issue? Ideally, you’ll cut out processed foods altogether. Yes, that includes bacon and sausages. Consider eating red meat no more than once a week and switching to lean meats such as chicken and turkey. Finally, don’t assume you need to eat meat at every meal. In addition to causing harm to the planet, you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.

About the Author

Laura McKeever
Laura has been a freelance medical writer for eight years. With a BSc in Medical Sciences and an MSc in Physician Assistant Studies, she complements her passion for medical news with real-life experiences. Laura’s most significant experience included writing for international pharmaceutical brands, including GSK.