Three alcoholic drinks a day can cause liver cancer, new research finds

25 March 2015

For the first time research has confirmed that just three alcoholic drinks a day can be enough to cause liver cancer.

Strong evidence linking liver cancer with three alcoholic drinks or more a day is one of several new findings uncovered for the first time by World Cancer Research Fund International’s Continuous Update Project (CUP).

The CUP report is the most comprehensive review to date of global research into the relationship between diet, weight and physical activity and liver cancer. Thirty-four studies were reviewed in the research covering 8.2 million people of whom more than 24,500 had liver cancer.

Previous CUP research has shown alcohol to be strongly linked with a range of cancers, including liver. World Cancer Research Fund recommends that if consumed women should try to limit their alcohol intake to one drink per day and men to two drinks per day.

Amanda McLean, Director of World Cancer Research Fund UK, said: "Around three or more drinks per day can be enough to cause liver cancer. Until now we were uncertain about the amount of alcohol likely to lead to liver cancer. But the research reviewed in this report is strong enough, for the first time, to be more specific about this."

Further strong research has emerged from the CUP showing that being overweight or obese is associated with an increased risk of the disease. Liver is now the 10th cancer our research shows is linked with overweight and obesity. Around 61% of people in the UK are overweight or obese.

Liver is one of the most deadly cancers with just a 12 per cent survival rate after five years. Globally around 782,000 cases were diagnosed in 2012, 4,703 cases in the UK. We estimate that nearly a quarter (24%) of cases diagnosed in the UK could be prevented, if people kept a healthy weight and did not drink.

The research also found strong evidence that drinking coffee can reduce the risk of the disease. It follows research we published in 2013 showing that coffee reduces the risk of womb cancer.

The CUP has also uncovered intriguing indications that physical activity and fish consumption may also decrease the risk of liver cancer, although more research is needed before any firm conclusions can be reached.

Dr Kate Allen, Executive Director of Science and Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund International, said: “There is a rich body of new evidence that has emerged from this latest CUP report.

"The new findings around alcohol, obesity and coffee are particularly interesting.  There are also interesting new suggestions relating to exercise and fish.

“The evidence about the relationship between diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer is becoming well established. We hope that these new findings will inform the debate about possible public health implications and policy responses.”

The CUP monitors and analyses research on cancer prevention and draws conclusions on how lifestyle factors such as weight, diet and physical activity can reduce the risk of developing the disease. A panel of independent experts assesses if the scientific evidence has changed and if this impacts on our 10 Recommendations for Cancer Prevention. It has so far reported on breast, bowel, pancreatic, womb (endometrial), advanced prostate cancer and ovarian cancer.

For cancer survivors our advice, if it fits with the specific medical advice given, is to follow our Cancer Prevention Recommendations.

For more information contact Paul Hebden on 020 7343 4273.

Notes for editors

  • Full details of our findings can be found in the report, Diet, nutrition, physical activity and liver cancer, or for further information please contact Paul Hebden in the WCRF Press Office. You can see further information on the CUP here.
  • There are unanswered questions around the findings on coffee for us to give definitive advice on coffee consumption. For example, we don’t know how many cups should be consumed and how regularly, what effect adding milk and/or sugar has, and whether the coffee drinking reported in the research was caffeinated or decaffeinated, instant or filter.
  • The 10 cancers linked to being overweight or obese are: liver, ovarian, bowel, post-menopausal breast, advanced prostate, womb (endometrial), oesophageal (adenocarcinoma), kidney, pancreatic and gallbladder.
  • Overweight = BMI of 25 to 29.9
  • Obese = BMI of 30 or more
  • Being overweight or obese increases blood levels of insulin, oestrogen and other hormones that can encourage the growth of cancerous cells, and because fat tissue is metabolically.