Eating Red Meat Leads to Cancer Growth: Myth or Truth

Mehak Shah

May 9, 2022

Meat consumption has gradually increased in the past 50 years. Eating excessive red and processed meat can lead to various health issues. Different studies showed that following a vegan or vegetarian diet reduces health risks. Whereas eating red meat, processed meat, and even fish is associated with developing cancer risk.

Globally the consumption of meat is increasing every year. That is because there are many nutrients in meat that are beneficial for health as long as taken in moderation. However, red meat, such as beef, lamb, pork, etc., may cause the risk of stomach or bowel cancer. Moreover, meat contains very low carbohydrates and dietary fibres; therefore, it is best to consume red meat in moderation to prevent various health issues.

Many studies suggest that eating processed meat can cause cancer because processed meat is preserved by curing, smoking, and salting various preservatives. Moreover, recent research by Oxford University shows that consuming non-vegetarian food plays a significant role in aggravating cancer in humans.

Swapping a serving of red and processed meat from your diet with chicken, eggs, poultry, vegetables, lentils, legumes, whole grains etc. can reduce cancer risk.

Can Excessive Consumption of Meat Lead to Cancer Growth?

Certain processed and red meat have both added and naturally occurring chemicals and preservatives which are harmful to health in the long term. In addition, these added preservatives and chemicals cause these foods to be carcinogenic. 

Moreover, when a chemical in red meat (haem) breaks down in the gut, chemicals called N-nitroso are formed, leading to bowel cancer. The World Health Organization has classified processed meat as a Class 1 carcinogen, meaning it is capable of causing cancer.

What does Oxford Research Say?

Oxford University’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit set out a study to evaluate the associated effects of vegetarian and non-vegetarian food with all types of cancer, including postmenopausal breast cancer,  colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer. 

The Oxford-based team looked into the relationship between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets and the risk of cancer by examining the data from over 472,000 British adults collected from the UK biobank between 2006 and 2010.  

Based on dietary questions, participants were categorised into different groups:

  • Group 1: People who ate meat more than five times a week (regular meat-eaters)
  • Group 2: People who consume a low amount of meat (five times or less per week)
  • Group 3: People who consume fish and  plant-based food
  • Group 4: People who don’t consume meat at all (Vegetarians)

54,961 cases were identified after 11.4 years, including 5882 colorectal cancer, 9501 prostate cancer, and 7537 postmenopausal breast cancer. Among all the cases, cancer mostly affected daily meat-eaters.

Meat and Cancer Risk: What Studies Suggest?

Reducing the intake of red and processed meat can reduce cancer risk. However, there are several reasons excessive meat-eating can cause cancer like: 

  • Cancer-causing chemicals develop when meat is burnt or charred. Therefore, cooking meat at a high temperature releases various cancer-causing compounds, which cause different types of cancers.  
  • A study proves that not only processed meat but Cantonese-style salted fish can also increase the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer (cancer that affects the throat)
  • Red meat includes lamb, pork and beef, and a study suggests that excessive consumption of these red meats increases the risk of different types of the rectum and pancreatic cancer. 
  • The preservatives, nitrates and nitrites in processed meats can also cause cancer.

Types of Red and Processed Meat that Can Lead to Cancer

Many studies prove that eating red meat can increase the risk of cancer. Red meat comes from mammals and is red when raw. Different types of red meats include:

  • Beef 
  • Pork 
  • Lamb
  • Mutton
  • Goat 
  • Venison
  • Boar

Processed meat also cause cancer because they go through various processing methods and have preservatives. Some processed meats are:

  • Sausages
  • Hot dogs
  • Bacon
  • Pepperoni

Eating meat in moderation can reduce the risk of various diseases because being a low meat and fish eater is associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer.

It has been proven that women consuming less meat have a lower risk of breast cancer than those who do not. On the other hand, a study suggests that eating excessive red meat may lead to the risk of invasive breast cancer.

Apart from this, in men eating more meat than required can lead to the risk of prostate cancer.

How Much Meat Can You Eat?

Lean red meat is a great source of zinc, iron, protein and Vitamin B12. To lower the risk of cancer, you don’t have to stop eating red and processed meat; however, it is best to cut down the amount you consume and include more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc. 

In addition, it is not healthy to consume more than 700 g of raw or 455 g of cooked, lean red meat each week and a tiny amount of processed meat.

To consume less amount of red meat, try swapping it with:

  • 80g cooked chicken (100 g raw)
  • Two eggs (120 g)
  • 150 g (1 cup) cooked or canned legumes. Therefore, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils etc
  • 100 g cooked fish (115 g raw) or one small can of fish (not Cantonese-style salted fish) (95 g)
  • 170 g tofu or tempeh
  • 30 g nuts like peanuts and almonds or seed pastes

Tips to Eat Less Red and Processed Meat to Reduce the Risk of Cancer

Eating about 50 grams of processed meat a day can increase the risk of colorectal cancer by 20%. The main reason behind this could be nitrate preservatives or other chemicals used in meat processing. 

You can reduce about 70% of your lifetime cancer risk by changing your diet. It is also important to make changes in one’s lifestyle to prevent cancer like avoiding cigarettes, exercising, following a healthy weight, limiting alcohol etc. 

If you are a regular meat-eater, it can be difficult for you to stop eating meat at once, but cutting down on meat in moderation can help you prevent the risk of cancer. Below are some ways in which you can decrease the consumption of red and processed meat and reduce the risk of various health issues: 

  • Reduce your serving of red meat and eat at least two to three different varieties of coloured and leafy vegetables.
  • Instead of processed meat, use more vegetables and legumes in your dishes; add celery, mushrooms, carrots, peas, lentils etc.  
  •  Try replacing red and processed meat with tofu, soy, nuts, poultry, fish, eggs etc.
  • Use chicken, fish, pasta, peas, potato etc., in curries, salads, sandwiches, and burgers.  
  • Replace processed meat such as bacon, pepperoni, prosciutto, ham, sausage or hot dog with tuna, chicken, mushrooms, tomato, eggplant, capsicum, cheese or baked beans 
  • Try eating meat-free meals every once a week.
  • If you still find it hard to decrease the number of meat products in your diet, it is best to look at the ingredients list and avoid meat that contains nitrates or nitrites, which can cause cancer.

The Bottom Line

Red and processed meats contain preservatives and chemicals like  N-nitroso compounds that have the potential to cause cancer. Eating excessive amounts of meat can cause nasopharyngeal cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer, colorectal cancer, and prostate cancer in both men and women. However, cutting down on red and processed meat products can lower cancer risk. Try replacing meat with food items that do not contribute to cancer growth, like chicken, eggs, poultry, whole grains, lentils, tofu, etc.  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q. Is Turkey cancerous?

A. There’s no firm evidence linking fresh white meats such as turkey to any cancer. Moreover, study shows that turkey is an excellent source of protein, vitamins and minerals. It is also low in fat and has other rich vitamins and nutrients like niacin, vitamin B6, vitamin B12 etc.

Q.  What makes meat carcinogenic? 

A. Meat contains heme iron, which can facilitate the growth of carcinogenic substances (substances capable of causing cancer in living tissue) in meat. In addition, while cooking meat at a high temperature or high flame, pan-frying, grilling and barbecuing can also produce cancer-causing chemicals like heterocyclic aromatic amines. 

Q. Is red meat good for chemo patients?

A. No, red meat is not suitable for chemo patients. Eating red meats like beef, pork, lamb, mutton, goat, venison and boar during chemo can cause more health problems because studies have shown that red meat can increase the risk of cancer. However, if your doctor suggests you can have lean red meat during chemo. 

Q. Why can’t chemo patients eat ice?

A. Chemotherapy sometimes can cause nerve damage, leading to a side effect called peripheral neuropathy. For example, patients are told not to eat ice during chemo because they may feel tingling, numbness and burning in the hands and feet. In addition, patients during chemo may experience extreme sensitivity to cold, known as cold dysesthesia. 

Q. What are the best foods to eat while on chemotherapy?

A. Chemotherapy can lower the strength in the body and can lead to symptoms that can make eating seem like a task like dry mouth, taste change, fatigue, and nausea. One should take a balanced diet with ample antioxidants, foods should be easily digestible and should not be oily or spicy. Some foods you can eat during chemotherapy are:

  • Oats
  • Avocado
  • Broth
  • Eggs
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Almonds and other nuts
  • Broccoli and other green vegetables
  • Smoothie Bowl

Q.  Is chicken carcinogenic?

A. There is no substantial evidence or study that suggests white meat such as chicken is carcinogenic. However, some analysis indicates that chicken might be carcinogenic because carcinogens occur naturally in chicken. Though there are few chances, consuming chicken in excessive amounts can lead to the risk of breast, prostate, and other cancers.

Q. What meats are not processed?

A. Red meats such as beef, lamb, pork food, mutton, goat, venison, and boar are a form of unprocessed meat. Lean meat also comes under the unprocessed meat category. In other words, meat that does not go through various processing methods like smoking, grilling etc. and does not have preservatives are unprocessed meats. Some processed meats are bacon, sausage, pepperoni, hotdog etc.

Q. Which lunch meat is the healthiest?

A. Deli meat is considered the healthiest form of lunch meat. Deli meat, which is sliced fresh off the bone or slab, contains natural salt or nitric acid and is minimally processed, making it a very healthy lunch meat option. Choose the leanest deli meat cut, such as turkey, lean ham, chicken breast, or roast beef. These deli meat have the highest nutritional value compared to other meats.

Q.  Is canned chicken healthy?

A. Canned chicken is considered healthy. Canned chicken breast is an excellent source of lean protein. In addition, it is also a good source of calcium, vitamin B, iron, vitamin D, and zinc. Other vitamins in the lean canned chicken are vitamin A and vitamin C.

Q. Does eating red meat cause bowel cancer?

A. Yes, studies have shown that eating an excessive amount of red meat can cause bowel cancer. It has also been observed that, red meat has a chemical called haem, and when it’s broken down in the gut, it forms N-nitroso chemicals, which can lead to the risk of bowel cancer. Apart from red meat, processed meat can also cause bowel cancer in some cases because processed meat is a class 1 carcinogen (capable of causing cancer).

About the Author

Mehak holds masters in foods and nutrition from Amity university, Noida. She has a keen interest in public health and nutrition and has been in charge of various projects with milestone NGO. She has worked with people over the globe to bring out the changes in their lives and has always been working towards lifestyle modifications via good dietary practices. According to her a healthy lifestyle is not about the destination but all about the journey.

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