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Red meat, processed meat and bowel cancer risk

A Sunday beef roast and bangers and mash are great British classics that are loved by many. And, in small amounts, these types of meat can provide protein, vitamins and minerals as part of a balanced diet.

You may, however, have heard that you shouldn’t eat red or processed meat too often – here we look at why.


  • What's the difference between red and processed meat? What's the difference between red and processed meat?

    To understand what you’re eating, it’s good to know exactly what’s classed as processed and what’s not. Processed meats include any meat that’s been salted, cured, smoked or had any preservatives added to it. Think bacon, sausages, ham, salami and pate. Red meats include cuts of beef, lamb, pork, veal, venison and offal.

    Eating these foods in large amounts on a regular basis could be harmful to your health. Strong evidence suggests that eating lots of red meat and processed meat may cause bowel cancer.

  • How does red meat and processed meat cause cancer? How does red meat and processed meat cause cancer?

    There are several theories about why these types of meat may lead to cancer. For example, researchers have suggested that haem, the naturally-occurring compound that gives meat its red colour, encourages carcinogens to form. A carcinogen is a substance that can cause cancer.

    It’s also thought that some of the preservatives that are added to processed meat (called nitrites or nitrates) may cause carcinogens to form. Carcinogens may also form when meat is cooked at a high temperature, causing it to char.

    Another theory suggests that the fat contained in red meat may increase bile acids which may cause bowel cancer to develop.

    Furthermore, people who eat a lot of red and processed meat often eat fewer foods that may be protective against cancer, such as fruit and veg.

  • Direct Access to support

    If you are experiencing the symptoms of suspected bowel cancer and have Bupa health insurance, there is usually no need for a GP referral. Call our team to speak to a specialist advisor or nurse.

    Excludes some company schemes. Subject to member’s underwriting terms and any pre-existing conditions. Eligibility checks are required for pre-authorisation.

  • So how much meat should I eat? So how much meat should I eat?

    UK guidelines recommend that if you eat more than 90g of red or processed meat a day, then you should cut down to 70g. This is the average amount eaten by the population.

    To put that into context, here are five examples of different meats and their cooked weight.

    • A rasher of back bacon is 25g.
    • A standard scotch egg is 31g.
    • A large grilled sausage is 40g.
    • A large donner kebab is 130g.
    • A portion of Sunday roast that consists of three thin slices of beef, pork or lamb is 90g.

    If you know you need to cut down, there are lots of ways that you can reduce your red meat intake without compromising on taste, protein and vitamins. Check out our tips below.

  • Top tips Tips for reducing red and processed meat in your diet

    • Try keeping several meals red meat free throughout the week.
    • Pulses such as chickpeas, beans and lentils can all be made into tasty burgers, spag bol and chilli con carne.
    • Choose fish such as sardines or tuna, or poultry such as chicken and turkey as an alternative to red meat.
    • Get your protein in other ways such as eating eggs, cottage cheese and hummous.
    • You can buy soya mince to make some of your favourite meals such as lasagne.
    • When you do have meat, choose lean cuts and eat smaller portions.
    • Bake, grill or poach your meat, poultry or fish rather than frying or chargrilling it.

    healthy approach to your diet is your best bet, for general health as well as disease prevention. Adjusting some of your everyday choices will all help to minimise your risk of bowel cancer. Besides, you may even discover some tasty alternative foods to meat that you hadn’t considered before!

  • Resources Resources

    Further information


    • Red meat and bowel cancer risk. Food Standards Agency., accessed 27 January 2014
    • Iron and health. Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), 2010.
    • Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 2012; 62(1):30–67. doi:10.3322/caac.20140
    • Red and processed meats and cancer prevention. World Cancer Research Fund., reviewed January 2013
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    Reviewed by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, January 2014.

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