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Home Cancer prevention Recommendations Meat and processed meat and cancer prevention

Red and processed meats and cancer prevention

Eat less red meat (such as beef, pork and lamb) and avoid processed meat.

To reduce your cancer risk, eat no more than 500g (cooked weight) per week of red meat, like beef, pork and lamb, and avoid processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs and some sausages.

What is red meat?

Red meat refers to beef, pork, lamb and goat – foods like hamburgers, minced beef, pork chops and roast lamb.

As a rough guide 500g of cooked red meat is the same as 700 to 750g of raw red meat. To help visualise how much this is, a medium portion of roast beef or pork is about 90g and a medium steak is about 145g.

Although eating a lot of red meat is linked to bowel cancer, it is a good source of nutrients including protein, iron and zinc. The evidence shows that eating up to 500g (cooked weight) of red meat per week does not significantly raise cancer risk. Regularly eating more than this, however, does increase risk of bowel cancer.

What are processed meats

Processed meats are meats which have been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives. Examples include ham, bacon, pastrami and salami, as well as hot dogs and some sausages. Hamburgers and minced meats only count as processed meat if they have been preserved with salt or chemical additives.

Research has show that eating processed meat can increase cancer risk. If you eat meat, then it is best to choose unprocessed meat.

Meat and cancer – the evidence

There is strong evidence that eating a lot of red meat is a cause of bowel cancer.

One possible reason for this is that the compound that gives red meat its colour, haem, may damage the lining of the bowel.

Studies also show that people who eat a lot of red meat tend to eat fewer plant-based foods, so they benefit less from their cancer-protective properties.

There is strong evidence that processed meats are a cause of bowel cancer.

When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed. These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer.

Tips for eating less red meat and avoiding processed meat

  • Keep several meals a week red meat-free. Make every other evening meal meat-free. Try replacing minced red meat with minced Quorn or use lentils or beans instead.
  • Grilled fish and poultry make tasty alternatives to red meat.
  • Choose vegetables and wholegrains first. Try to avoid large portions of meat.
  • Try canned fish including sardines, salmon, tuna and mackerel. These are all great in sandwiches or pasta dishes.
  • Add beans or pulses such as kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils. Tasty alternatives in dishes such as chilli or bolognese, and they can even be made into burgers.
  • Don't forget eggs, cottage cheese and houmous. These are all good sources of protein too.
  • Swap processed meats for healthier alternatives. Instead of bacon, chorizo or salami, try spicy chicken or vegetarian sausages.

If you want inspiration for meals that do not use a lot of red meat, then there are lots of ideas in our recipes section.

Read all our Recommendations for Cancer Prevention

Red meat and cancer

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Page last reviewed: January 2013
Page next due for review: January 2015
The information on this page is based on the findings of our Expert Report and is covered by the Information Standard.

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