Why is red meat bad for you, what is it and how is it linked to bowel cancer?

SWAPPING red meat for chicken and fish – or pulses like beans and lentils – will help lower your chances of developing bowel cancer, say experts.

But, what exactly is classed as “red meat”, is it bad for you to eat, and how is it linked to bowel cancer?

What is considered red meat?

The NHS says that this type of meat is classed as red:

  • beef
  • lamb and mutton
  • pork
  • veal
  • venison
  • goat

It doesn't include:

  • chicken
  • turkey
  • duck
  • goose
  • game birds
  • rabbit

What is classed as processed meat?

Processed meat refers to meat that's been preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. This includes:

  • sausages
  • bacon
  • ham
  • deli meats such as salami
  • pâtés
  • canned meat such as corned beef
  • sliced luncheon meats, including those made from chicken and turkey

Is red meat bad for you?

The NHS says there is "probably a link between eating a lot of red and processed meat and bowel (colorectal) cancer."

Moderate red meat eaters are significantly more likely to develop bowel cancer than occasional consumers, the largest UK study of its kind says.

Professor Tim Key, co-author of the new research, from the University of Oxford, says results "strongly suggest that people who eat red and processed meat four or more times a week have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who eat red and processed meat less than twice a week."

Just 25g of processed meat daily – equal to one rasher or two-thirds of a sausage – raises the risk of bowel tumours by a fifth, the study suggests.

It found that people consuming an average of 76g per day of red and processed meat had a 20 per cent higher risk of bowel cancer compared with those who ate 21g per day.

A slice of ham is about 23g; a quarter-pound beef burger is 78g; a large doner kebab is 130g, while three thinly-cut slices of roast lamb, beef or pork is the equivalent of 90g.

And a cooked breakfast – of two standard British sausages and two thin-cut rashers of bacon – provides 130g of meat.

The NHS says that as long as you're eating a balanced diet that includes other good sources of iron, such as lentils, beans, eggs, fish, chicken, turkey, nuts and breakfast cereals, you should still get enough iron.

What is the link to bowel cancer?

One in 15 men and one in 18 women born after 1960 in the UK will be diagnosed with bowel cancer in their lifetime, says Cancer Research.

The charity's joint study found that risk rose 20 per cent with every 25g of processed meat (roughly equivalent to a rasher of bacon or slice of ham) people ate per day, and 19 per cent with every 50g of red meat (a thick slice of roast beef or the edible bit of a lamb chop).

Existing evidence points to an increased bowel cancer risk for every 50g of processed meat a person eats per day, but the new study found that risk increases at just 25g per day.

Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK's head of health information, said the results don't "necessarily mean cutting out red and processed meat entirely, but you may want to think about simple ways to reduce how much you have and how often.

"You could try doing meat-free Mondays, looking for recipes using fresh chicken and fish, or swapping meat for pulses like beans and lentils in your usual meals."

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