Can I eat meat if I have cancer or have had cancer?

You can eat meat if you have cancer or have had cancer. It’s a good source of protein, iron, vitamin B12 and zinc.

There’s no evidence to suggest you should avoid meat. However, eating meat is not essential and you should make sure you eat a balanced diet.

What is red, white and processed meat?

Red meat is from mammals and includes beef, pork, mutton, lamb, and goat.

Chicken, turkey, or other poultry is called white meat. White meat is lower in calories and saturated fat.

Processed meat is all meat that has been smoked, cured, salted, fermented or processed in another way to make it last longer and enhance the flavour. This includes bacon, salami, chorizo, corned beef, hot dogs and all types of ham.

What does research show?

Meat is a good source of protein and important vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin B12 and iron. Meat can therefore be part of a healthy balanced diet. However, research shows that eating too much red meat, and particularly processed meat (such as bacon) increases the risk of bowel cancer. Red meat can also be high in energy, fat (especially saturated fat, which can increase our cholesterol levels), and salt.

Processed meats can also be high in fat and salt. There is no safe amount of consumption for processed meat. The advice is therefore to eat as little processed meat as possible.

Our advice

Eat a maximum of three portions of meat a week. This is around 350-500g of cooked (or 525-750g raw weight) red meat (that is the weight after preparation).

What is a portion?

A portion is around 90g cooked weight (130g raw weight) of roast beef, pork or lamb, a small pork or lamb chop or 140g of minced beef (201g raw weight).

Eating less or no meat

More and more people are eating less or no meat because of animal welfare, the environment or for their own health. In some cancer patients, meat may taste different from before and therefore they do not want to eat it anymore. It’s fine to not eat meat at all, but you need to make sure you eat plenty of other foods to get enough protein, iron, and other nutrients in your diet.

Good substitutes for red or processed meat include fish, chicken, cheese, eggs or vegetarian products such as tofu, tempeh and Quorn. Pulses such as lentils and chickpeas also make good meat substitutes.

Tips to reduce red meat consumption:

  • Swap minced beef for minced turkey, soya or Quorn mince
  • Keep some days meat-free
  • Have smaller portions of red meat
  • Make red meat go further by adding pulses, or vegetables to bulk up stews, chillies and pasta sauces
  • Have chicken, hard-boiled eggs, canned tuna in spring water or low-fat hummus or cream cheese instead of ham in sandwiches

During cancer treatment, if you’re having problems with eating or are losing weight you may need to change your diet and relax the advice. It’s more important to eat enough to maintain your strength, energy, and to support you through your treatment. It’s best to seek the advice from a dietitian for more advice if you are unsure.

After your treatment is finished and your appetite has returned, make sure you follow the advice again. If you eat less or no meat, you need to eat enough substitutes (such as tofu or beans) and other foods to ensure you have a balanced diet and don’t miss out on any important nutrients.

> Find out more about red and processed meat and cancer risk

> Read our recommendations to limit red meat and avoid processed meat

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