Eating even a moderate amount of red or processed meat increases your risk of having colon cancer, a new study concluded.
Experts at the University of Oxford, University of Auckland and the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization analyzed the diets and cancer rates of nearly half a million people who participate in the U.K. Biobank research project. The Biobank is a national and international health resource with unparalleled research opportunities, open to all bona fide health researchers.
The scientists followed participants for nearly six years and found those who ate an average of 76 grams (almost 3 ounces) of red or processed meat (salted, cured, fermented, smoked, or otherwise treated to "enhance flavor or improve preservation") a day — which is in line with U.K. government guides — had a 20% higher risk of colon cancer than those who had 21 grams a day.
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"Our results strongly suggest that people who eat red and processed meat four or more times a week have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who eat red and processed meat less than twice a week," said Tim Key, co-author of the study and deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit of Nuffield Department of Population Health.
"There is substantial evidence that red and processed meat are linked to bowel cancer, and the World Health Organization classifies processed meat as carcinogenic and red meat as probably carcinogenic," Key added. "Most previous research looked at people in the 1990s or earlier, and diets have changed significantly since then, so our study gives a more up-to-date insight that is relevant to meat consumption today."
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Both men and women, ages 40-69, participated in the study.
One in 15 men and 1 in 18 women born after 1960 in the U.K. will be diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetime. Researchers found the cancer risk rose by 19 percent for every 25 grams of processed meat — a slice of ham or bacon — that people ate daily, and by 18 percent for each 50 grams of red meat — equivalent to a thick slice of roast beef or a lamb cutlet.
Key said the researchers are not suggesting the government change its guidelines on eating red or processed meat.
"Meat is important for iron," Key told the Guardian. "We would want to consider other aspects of health if we were going to change the recommendation. The main message for the public is that it reinforces the government advice that we shouldn't eat large amounts of red and processed meat."
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Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health information, said: “The government guidelines on red and processed meat are general health advice, and this study is a reminder that the more you can cut down beyond this, the more you can lower your chances of developing bowel cancer.”
Cutting meat consumption is in line with a landmark study earlier this year.
Our current food production and consumption habits are doomed to "exacerbate risks to people and planet," the study published in January in The Lancet stated. But if we make a radical change — as in, cut our sugar and red meat by half and double our vegetable, fruit and nut consumption — we could potentially prevent up to 11.6 million avoidable deaths per year without hurting our home, the study said.
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Key's study was published in Wednesday in the International Journal of Epidemiology. You can read the full study here.