Eat well

Red meat and the risk of bowel cancer

A plate of sliced ham Credit:

Olha Afanasieva / Alamy Stock Photo

Red meat – such as beef, lamb and pork – is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, and can form part of a balanced diet. But eating a lot of red and processed meat probably increases your risk of bowel (colorectal) cancer.

That's why it's recommended that people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat per day cut down to 70g, as 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 reduce your risk.

What counts as red and processed meat?

Red meat includes:

  • beef
  • lamb and mutton
  • pork
  • veal
  • venison
  • goat

It doesn't include:

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

Processed meat refers to meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes:

  • sausages
  • bacon
  • ham
  • deli meats such as salami
  • pâtés
  • canned meat such as corned beef
  • sliced luncheon meats, including those made from chicken and turkey

How much red and processed meat can 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's recommended that you reduce your intake to 70g a day.

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

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 the average amount you eat each day is no more than 70g.

Children

Children over 5 should eat a balanced diet, as shown in the proportions on the Eatwell guide. This should include meat or other sources of protein. Children don't need as much food as adults, and the amount they need depends on their age and size.

For babies and children under 5, get advice on introducing them to white and red meat, and other solid foods.

Portion sizes and cutting down

These average examples of the weight of various cooked meat products can help you find out how much red and processed meat you eat.

The amount in grams represents the cooked weight:

  • portion of Sunday roast (3 thin-cut slices of roast lamb, beef or pork, each about the size of half a slice of sliced bread) – 90g
  • grilled 8oz beef steak – 163g
  • cooked breakfast (2 standard British sausages, around 9cm long, and 2 thin-cut rashers of bacon) – 130g
  • large doner kebab – 130g
  • 5oz rump steak – 102g
  • quarter-pound beef burger – 78g 
  • thin slice of corned beef – 38g
  • a slice of black pudding – 30g
  • a slice of ham – 23g

Cutting down

You can cut down on red and processed meat by eating smaller portions, and by eating them less often. The following swaps could help:

  • 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-pound burger for a standard hamburger. Or you could choose a chicken, fish or vegetable burger for a change.
  • Sausages: swap to having 2 pork sausages rather than 3, and add a portion of vegetables. Opt for reduced-fat sausages.
  • Sunday roast: swap your roast beef, pork or lamb for roast chicken, turkey or fish. 
  • Steak: swap an 8oz steak (163g) for a 5oz steak (102g).
  • Casseroles, stews and curries: include more vegetables, beans and pulses, and use less red meat.

You could also swap lamb or beef mince for turkey or vegetarian mince in your spaghetti bolognese, lasagne and chilli con carne.

Try to 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 government, says adults who eat more than 90g 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, eating smaller amounts or exchanging them for alternatives.

What is the advice based on?

The advice is based on a 2011 report called Iron and Health from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). SACN is a committee of independent nutrition experts that advises 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 the 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. 

Based on data from the NDNS (2000/01), the average total red meat consumption for men is around 88g a day. For women, it's around 52g a day. This gives an average of 70g a 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. But it couldn't identify the amount of red and processed meat that may increase the risk of bowel cancer because of inconsistencies in the data.

The average daily adult consumption of red and processed meat in the UK is 70g, so those who eat more than 90g are said to have a relatively high intake. It's recommended that these people cut down on red and processed meat so that their consumption is in line with the average.

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

Yes, providing you're eating a balanced diet that includes other good sources of iron, such as 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 2000/01 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 won't increase the number of people who don't get enough iron in their diet.

If you don't get enough iron in your diet, you may be at risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia. Learn more about anaemia.

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 the evidence that red and processed meats are causes of bowel cancer is convincing. It advises that people eat no more than 500g of red meat a week (around 70g a day) and avoid processed meats.

Why are red and processed meat considered together?

SACN found 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, some meat or meat products, or other sources of protein, are recommended as part of a balanced diet.

Meat is a good source of protein, B vitamins, and minerals such as iron, selenium and zinc. It is also one of the main sources of vitamin B12, which is only found naturally 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 8 tips for healthy eating.

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's more treatable.

Early symptoms include changes in your bowel habits. If you've noticed blood in your stools or they've been looser for 3 weeks, see your doctor.

The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme offers screening every 2 years to all men and women aged between 60 and 74. People in this age range who are registered with a GP will automatically be sent an invitation for screening through the post every 2 years. Learn more about bowel cancer screening.

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

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

You can learn more about reducing your risk of bowel cancer in causes 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 getting more active.

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

Page last reviewed: 01/02/2018
Next review due: 01/02/2021