Eating red meat is linked to cancer

Updated on 07 March 2011 | 0 Comments

The Department of Health has issued an unprecedented edict proclaiming eating red meat is linked to bowel cancer.

Last week, the Department of Health issued an unprecedented edict proclaiming eating red meat is linked to bowel cancer.

As a result, the Government is advising us all to restrict our intake of red and processed meat to 70g a day - a 20g reduction on the current recommended allowance. 

This means the total weekly amount advised, 500g, is the equivalent of one large steak. That’s right. One large steak. A week. That’s all that you should eat if you want to stay healthy. 

Wait a second. That’s ridiculous – right? 

What is the Government basing its guidelines on? 

The edict comes in the wake of fresh scientific research by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, which reviewed the evidence on the links between red meat and bowel cancer, and concluded that red meat “probably” increases the risk of bowel cancer.

Similarly, The American Institute for Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund say there is "convincing" evidence that red meat intake increases the risk for colorectal cancer, and there is "suggestive" evidence that it increases the risk of oesophageal, lung, pancreatic and endometrial cancer. 

But it’s not just red meat that has been linked to cancer - the Harvard School of Public Health found that people who ate skinless chicken five times or more per week increased their risk of developing bladder cancer by 52 percent. 

And not everyone agrees with the Government’s decree. Confusingly, only days before the release of this information, the British Nutrition Foundation  defended red meat, suggesting that the theory it causes cancer is “inconclusive”. They also said that the majority of adults are these days eating it in “healthy amounts”, leaving the raised alarm over the food wholly unnecessary.  

So who should we believe? Should we all start cutting down on red meat? What are the health risks – and are there any health benefits?

The health risks

Let’s be fair to the Government. There are other health risks associated with eating a lot of red meat as well as the new research linking it to cancer. 

High consumption of red and processed meat (which includes minced, frozen beef, pork, lamb and veal) has for decades been associated with life-threatening diseases. 

Here are a few of the main problems: 

- Red meat is fatty. It is this high content of unhealthy, saturated fat that keeps it inextricably and unavoidably linked to obesity, which in turn connects it to heart disease, cardiovascular problems and cancer. 

- Red meat is high in cholesterol (mostly found in animal fats, cheese, eggs), the deadly build up which can alter artery blood flow and be the eventual cause of coronary heart disease.

 - Red meat increases the risk of diabetes. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women who ate the highest amounts of red meat were 28% more likely to develop diabetes than their peers who ate the lowest amounts. Bacon and hot dogs were identified as two of the worst offenders. 

For these reasons, as well as eating red meat in ‘moderation’, the other advice is to make sure you source the leanest cuts. So if you’re the kind who tucks into fatty chops or offerings from dodgy-looking kebab outlets, you may be asking for trouble. 

The health benefits caused by red meat 

Don’t fall into the trap of concluding from all of this that eating red meat causes nothing but problems. Red meat is also the source of many essential vitamins. Some of these are:  

Iron - Devoid of this mineral, we risk anaemia. Iron functions as the oxygen carrier from our lungs to the rest of our bodies. 

Protein - Important for growth and repair, our bodies could not do without the nutrients that are found plentifully in protein-rich foods. It ensures our general health and provides the body with its central source of dietary energy. 

Zinc - Fundamental for the body's immune system, zinc also ensures one’s skin, nails, hair remain healthy.

A healthy balanced diet

The good news is, thankfully, the Government (and its scientists) do recognise this. They concede that red meat eaten as part of a healthy, balanced diet can be enjoyed just as much as it has always been.

Of course, the next question is: what is a ‘healthy balanced diet’?

And how will this work in practice? When you consider that most packs of meat (and ready-made meals) are sold in packs bigger than 70g per portion, what are we supposed to do? Buy the meat and then let some of it go to waste?

Furthermore, how are the Government proposing to change people’s eating habits? Tucking into roast beef for lunch and lamb chops for dinner doesn’t seem terribly unhealthy to me, but unless your portion sizes are tiny it could be deemed 'unhealthy' under the new guidelines. Same goes for an English breakfast followed by a red meat lunch or dinner!

In fact, here at, we were surprised by how easy it was to exceed the 70g limit in just one meal. Take a look at the following recipes – which we would deem light weekday suppers:

Rachel Green's lamb kebabs - 112.5g each

Ching-He Huang's crispy pork- 150g of pork each

Jamie Oliver's rib-eye stir-fry - 125g each

Ching-He Huang's sweet and sour pork- 150g each (depending on the weight of the pork chop)

Bill Granger's buffalo rendang – 330g each

Yet according to the Government guidelines, eating just one of these meals a day – and sticking to chicken, vegetables or fish at all other times - would mean you are eating too much red meat.

Are you surprised by this? What do you think of the new guidelines? Let us know your thoughts using the comments box below!

Also worth your attention:

Richard Corrigan's sea bass

Annabel Karmel's vegetable burgers

James Martin's tagliatelle with salmon

Also worth your attention:

Eating for our Planet


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