Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer

Red meat – such as beef, lamb and pork – can form part of a healthy diet. But eating a lot of red and processed meat probably increases your risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer.

That’s why the Department of Health advises people who eat more than 90 grams (cooked weight) of red and processed meat a day to cut down to 70 grams.

Red meat is a good source of protein and vitamins and minerals, such as iron and zinc.

But evidence shows that there is probably a link between eating red and processed meat, and the risk of bowel cancer. People who eat a lot of these meats are at higher risk of bowel cancer than those who eat small amounts.

If you eat more than 90g of red or processed meat a day it is recommended that you cut down. Ninety grams is the equivalent of about three thin-cut slices of roast beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is the about the size of half a piece of sliced bread. It is recommended that you cut down to 70g, which is the average adult daily consumption of red and processed meat in the UK. This could help reduce your risk of bowel cancer.

Other healthier lifestyle choices, such as maintaining a healthy weight, keeping active and not smoking can also help reduce your risk.

According to UK dietary surveys, four in 10 men and one in 10 women eat more than 90g of red and processed meat a day.


What counts as red and processed meat?

The guidelines refer to red meat and processed red meat.

This definition of red meat includes:

  • beef
  • lamb
  • pork
  • veal
  • venison
  • goat

It does not include:

  • turkey meat
  • duck
  • goose
  • game birds
  • chicken
  • rabbit 

Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes sausages, bacon, ham, salami and pâtés.

How much red and processed meat should we eat?

The guidelines are for adults. To read advice for children, see below.

Adults

If you eat more than 90g of red or processed meat a day, it is recommended that you reduce your intake to 70g per day, which is the average UK consumption.

You can do this by eating smaller portions of red and processed meat and swapping them for alternatives, and by eating these meats less often.

If you eat more than 90g of red and processed meat on a certain day, you can eat less on the following days or have meat-free days, so that over time your consumption is not more than 70g per day on average.

Children

Children over five should eat a healthy, balanced diet. This should include meat in the same proportion as it is in a balanced diet for an adult.

Children do not need as much food as adults, and the amount they need depends on their age and size. For help with portion sizes for children, see Change4Life: Me-size meals.

For babies and children under five, get advice on introducing them to white and red meat and other solid foods.

Portion sizes and cutting down

These examples of the weight of various cooked meat products can help you to find out how much red and processed meat you eat. The amount in grams represents the cooked weight:

  • A portion of Sunday roast (three thin-cut slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, each about the size of half a slice of sliced bread): 90g
  • A grilled 8oz beef steak: 163g
  • A cooked breakfast (two standard British sausages – often sold in packs of eight that weigh 1lb or 454g and measuring around 9cm long – and two thin-cut rashers of bacon): 130g
  • A large doner kebab: 130g
  • A 5oz rump steak: 102g
  • A quarter pounder beefburger: 78g 
  • A Big Mac: 70g
  • A Peperami: 25g

Cutting down

You can cut down on red and processed meat by eating smaller portions, and by eating them less often.

These swaps can help you to cut down without making radical changes to your diet.

  • Breakfast: if it’s a full English, swap either the bacon or sausages for extra mushrooms, tomatoes or toast.
  • Sandwiches: swap one of your ham or beef sandwiches for a non-red meat filling, such as chicken or fish.
  • Pie and chips: swap your steak pie for chicken pie.
  • Burger: swap your quarter pounder burger for a standard hamburger. Better still, choose a chicken, fish or a vegetable burger for a change.
  • Sausages: swap to having two pork sausages rather than three, and add a portion of vegetables.
  • Sunday roast: swap your roast beef, pork or lamb for roast chicken. 
  • Steak: swap an 8oz steak for a 5oz steak.
  • Casseroles, stews and curries: include more vegetables, and use less red meat.
  • Swap lamb or beef mince for turkey or vegetarian mince in your spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and chilli con carne.
  • Have a meat-free day each week. Swap red or processed meat for fish or shellfish, or have a vegetarian meal.

Frequently asked questions

What is the current advice on eating red and processed meat?

The current advice, issued by the Department of Health in 2011, says adults who eat more than 90 grams (g) of red and processed meat a day should reduce their intake to 70g a day, which is the average daily consumption in the UK. This is because there is probably a link between eating a lot of red and processed meat, and bowel (colorectal) cancer.

You can do this by eating these meats less often or eating smaller amounts, or by exchanging them for alternatives.

What is the advice based on?

The advice is based on a report called Iron and Health, by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), published in 2011. SACN is a committee of independent nutrition experts who advise the government on diet and nutrition.

Why did SACN issue advice on meat, when its report is about iron?

In its report SACN looked at studies that assessed the link between iron and bowel cancer. Since red meat is a source of iron in the UK, the report also examined the evidence on red and processed meat and bowel cancer. SACN concluded that eating a lot of red and processed meat probably increases risk of bowel cancer, and advised accordingly.

How much red and processed meat do we eat in the UK?

SACN used data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) to estimate adult consumption of red and processed meat in the UK. 

The NDNS gives estimates of total meat and meat dishes consumed in the UK.

Based on data from the NDNS (2000 to 2001), the average total red meat consumption for men is around 88g per day. For women, it is around 52g per day. This gives an average of 70g per day for all adults. 

Why is this advice aimed at those who eat more than 90g of red or processed meat a day?

SACN examined evidence from scientific studies and concluded that eating red and processed meat probably increases the risk of bowel cancer.

However, SACN could not identify the amount of red and processed meat that may increase the risk of bowel cancer because of inconsistencies in the data. Since the average daily adult consumption of red and processed meat in the UK is 70g, those who eat more than 90g are considered to have a relatively high intake of these meats. It is recommended that these people cut down on red and processed meat, so that their consumption is in line with average consumption.

If I cut down on red and processed meat, will I still get enough iron?

Yes, providing that you are eating a balanced diet that includes other good sources of iron. These include lentils, beans, eggs, fish, chicken, turkey, nuts and breakfast cereals.

SACN looked at the impact of eating less red and processed meat on iron intake, using data from the 2000/2001 National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

SACN estimates that if people who eat more than 90g a day of red and processed meat reduce their consumption to 70g a day, this will not increase the number of people who do not get enough iron in their diet.

Low iron intake is not the only cause of iron deficiency anaemia. It can also be caused by increased blood losses due to menstruation, or by gastrointestinal (stomach and intestine) disease, which increases gastrointestinal blood loss. A common cause of iron deficiency anaemia in older adults is gastrointestinal blood loss due to the use of some medicines, such as aspirin.

Certain groups are more at risk from iron deficiency anaemia. These include toddlers, girls, women of childbearing age and some adults aged over 65. The most common symptoms of iron deficiency anaemia are tiredness, lack of energy, shortness of breath and irregular heartbeat. You can learn more about symptoms, diagnosis and treatment on our iron deficiency anaemia pages. If you are concerned you may be iron deficient, see your GP.

Does anyone else give advice on eating red and processed meat?

The World Cancer Research Fund report Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer provided advice on red and processed meat in 2007. The organisation said that the evidence that red and processed meats are causes of bowel cancer is convincing. They advise that people eat no more than 500g of red meat per week (around 70g a day) and avoid processed meats.

Why are red and processed meat considered together?

SACN found that there was no clear basis in the scientific evidence for separating unprocessed red meat and processed meat when it comes to their link to bowel cancer. Additionally, many of the scientific studies reviewed by SACN did not separate red and processed meat. SACN therefore considered the impact of a reduction in total red meat intake, and advised accordingly.

Can red and processed meat form part of a healthy diet?

Yes. Department of Health advice is to consume some meat or meat products, or other sources of protein, as part of a healthy balanced diet.

Meat is a good source of protein, and vitamins and minerals such as iron, selenium, zinc and B vitamins. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12, which is only found in foods from animals, such as meat and milk.

Choose healthier meat and meat products, such as lean cuts of meat and leaner mince, where possible. You can learn more about healthy eating basics in Eight tips for healthy eating.

How common is bowel cancer?

In England, bowel cancer is the third most common type of cancer. An estimated 38,000 new cases of bowel cancer are diagnosed each year and an estimated 16,000 people die from bowel cancer each year. Approximately 80% of bowel cancer cases develop in people who are over 60.

In 2007, about 17,600 cases of bowel cancer were diagnosed in women, making it the second most common cancer in women after breast cancer. There were about 21,000 cases in men, making it the third most common cancer in men after prostate and lung cancer.

Learn more about bowel cancer, including its symptoms, diagnosis and treatment.

I’ve been eating red meat regularly for many years and am now worried about bowel cancer. What should I do?

Find out more about the symptoms of bowel cancer. If bowel cancer is detected early, it is more treatable.

Early symptoms include changes in your bowel habits. If you’ve noticed blood in your stools or they have been looser for three weeks, see your doctor.

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme started in 2006. Adults in England between the ages of 60 and 75 who are registered with a GP will automatically be sent an invitation for screening in the post. Learn more about bowel cancer screening.

To reduce your risk of bowel cancer, there are several changes you can make to your lifestyle (see the next question).

If you’re still concerned about bowel cancer, talk to your GP.

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

People who smoke cigarettes are at greater risk of developing bowel cancer. Stopping smoking will reduce your risk.

Obesity and being inactive are also linked to an increased risk of bowel cancer, so get advice on achieving a healthy weight and on getting more active.

In general, people who have a healthy balanced diet are less likely to get certain types of cancer. Learn more about a balanced diet.

You can learn more about reducing your risk of bowel cancer in causes of bowel cancer and preventing bowel cancer.

Page last reviewed: 04/03/2013

Next review due: 04/03/2015

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The 3 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Mikkil said on 09 July 2012

For the NHS to advice on Big Mac or another processed food Peperami seems stupid - these are not healthy as full of additives - nearly as bad as the Olympics being sponsored by fast food and sugary drinks are you all in the hands of the manufacturers - not really a good message for the growing obese population - as these are the causes of a lot of the issues - hidden salts and sugars and these lead to cancers

Advising anyone to eat junk food under the guise it is healthy is ludicrous but especially on a NHS website ?

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goblin82 said on 28 March 2011

The only safe daily portions of red meat in the list are Pepperami and a Big Mac. Does this have anything to do with the fact that Andrew Lansley has invited fast food companies Unilever (Pepperami) and McDonalds (Big Mac) to advise on public health White Papers? Nice little puff piece whatever.

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doris3344 said on 18 March 2011

there are two branded products on the list of examples of suitable portions, one is a big mac and one is a peperoni, first of all i would much rather see the NHS recommending the occassional consumption of unprocessed meat over products like this that are high in salt and other preservatives. i wouldn't eat or feed these things to my children if you paid me.

secondly, i think the link between this product placement and the governments love affair with large multinational corperations is very sinister and i don't like the fact that it is informing our health policy and the content of this website

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/nov/12/mcdonalds-pepsico-help-health-policy

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