Is meat intake associated with the risk of all cancers?

by Dr Anika Knüppel, University of Oxford

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In the UK every two minutes someone is diagnosed with cancer,[1] which highlights the importance of research on what we can do to reduce the risk. Previous research found that red and processed meat consumption may increase the risk of colorectal cancer[2], but whether meat was associated with other cancers was still unclear. In our latest research, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology[3], we addressed this question by examining associations between red, processed meat and poultry intake and 20 common cancers.

We used data from the UK Biobank cohort. This study of half a million UK adults asked participants about their lifestyle and food intake between 2006-2010 and linked their data to cancer registries. All our analyses took into account participants’ socio-economic circumstances, smoking, other lifestyle factors and dietary intake. We included participants who were cancer-free at the beginning of the study, and 7 years later, 29 000 participants were diagnosed with cancer.

Our study examined whether participants who ate a lot of meat at the beginning of the study had a higher risk of cancer than those who ate little meat. We found that high intakes of red and processed meat increased the risk for colorectal cancer by 32% per every 70 grams per day.  This amount equals three rashers of bacon or a quarter-pounder beef burger. In the UK this would be equivalent with a rise in average lifetime risk of colorectal cancer of 1 in 19 in people with low red and processed meat intake to 1 in 14 for people with 70 grams higher intake. I must note that we were not able to clearly distinguish the results between red and processed meat, because most participants who ate a lot of red meat also ate a lot of processed meat and vice versa.

Regarding other cancers, we found little evidence for associations with meat intake. Moreover, we found that poultry intake was not associated with cancer risk[4].

More research investigating the broad role of all types of meat in cancer risk is needed, to confirm our findings. But considering colorectal cancer kills 16,300 people in the UK each year and is the 3rd most common cancer in women and men[5] they support the reduction of meat intake for health reasons. As well as supporting your health, reducing red meat can be beneficial for environmental reasons as shown by our colleagues in LEAP (see Meat, dairy and a net-zero emission future). LEAP researchers are also looking into behavioural interventions to help support people into making these changes (See Enabling environmentally-aware food choices).