The link between excessive red and processed meat consumption and rectal and colon cancer are well established. As a result the current NHS guidelines are to limit consumption to no more than 70g/day. To give you an idea of how little this is, an average cooked breakfast of 2 sausages and 2 rashers of bacon gives you 130g, almost twice the recommended limit. However rather worryingly, even this low threshold may be too high. The largest diet study of it’s kind in this area published today suggests that even consuming 70g/day of red and processed meat could increase your risk of bowel cancer by 20%.

The study, published in the international journal of Epidemiology, is called ” Diet and colorectal cancer in UK Biobank “. It followed 475,000 adults between the ages of 40-69 years for on average 5 years. A detailed record of their diet were kept along with the incidence of colorectal cancer. During the period of the study 2,609 cases of bowl cancer occurred, or around .05% of the total group. Translating this into more understandable figures, roughly one person in 200 developed bowel cancer.  However breaking down the results down further by diet showed some very interesting varations within the group.

  • 1 in 160 of the group eating the most red and processed meat developed bowel cancer, compared to 1 in 250 in the group eating the least.
  • In contrast there was no significant difference in incidence of bowel cancer at different levels of consumption of chicken or fish.
  • Consuming diary milk regularly appeared to offer modest protection, though cheese did the opposite.
  • Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption didn’t appear to offer any protection. (something I found quite surprising)
  • Increasing fibre from whole grain sources (bread and cereals) however reduced the rate from 1 in 190 in the lowest consuming group to 1 in 180 in the highest
  • The group consuming the most alcohol had a cancer rate of 1 in 150 compared to 1 in 210 in the group consuming the least.

The authors conclude that there was a strong statistical link between red meat, processed meat and alcohol and bowel cancer. This link has been evident for some time, however this study  confirms this.. It also gives an indication of how the relative risk rises with increased consumption. The health message is clear, cut down on red and processed meat to probably a maximum of 2 times a week. I wrote about alcohol and health last week, so for more on that go to this link. My advice would be to switch instead to chicken and fish or vegetarian protein sources. Also focus on increasing dietary fibre, both from whole grains and fruit and vegetables.

Brighton nutritionist