People should limit their consumption of red and processed meat to no more than 70g a day to help reduce their risk of
bowel cancer, the Department of Health for England announced on Friday.
By red meat, they mean beef, lamb and pork plus minced meat or offal from the same animals. Examples of processed meat include ham, bacon, pâté, burgers, sausages, corned beef and salami.
The 70g refers to the cooked weight: when meat is cooked it loses a lot of water, so for example, about 130g of raw meat becomes 90g when it is cooked.
This is the first time that the UK government has issued such advice, which follows the publication of a new report from the independent expert Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) that reviewed the evidence so far on links between consumption of red and processed meat and risk of colorectal or bowel cancer.
The report concluded that eating red and processed meat probably increases the risk of developing bowel cancer, and people who eat on average 90g a day or more should consider cutting down to an average of 70g a day or less.
The SACN also estimates that reducing intakes to an average of 70g a day in the adult population is unlikely to increase the proportion that does not get enough iron in their diet.
70g (2.5 ounces) is about the same as:
- Two slices of roast beef, lamb or pork.
- Three slices of ham.
- Three rashers of bacon.
- Two sausages.
- Six slices of salami.
- Two standard beefburgers.
- One lamb chop.
Interim Chief Medical Officer for the UK, Professor Dame Sally Davies said that red meat can be part of a healthy diet: it is a good source of protein and essential vitamins and minerals including iron, selenium, zinc and B vitamins.
But she urged people who eat a lot of red and processed meat to think about cutting down:
"The occasional steak or extra few slices of lamb is fine but regularly eating a lot could increase your risk of bowel cancer" she warned.
Dame Sally said cancer can have a devastating effect on individuals and their families, and last month the government launched the first ever campaign to raise awareness of how to spot the early signs and symptoms of bowel cancer.
"We're now going a step further and giving scientific advice on how to help prevent it," she added.
The Chief Executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, Mark Flannagan, told the press they welcomed this government advice.
"The evidence suggests that a diet high in red and processed meat may increase your risk of developing bowel cancer, but the good news is that red meat can still be enjoyed in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet," said Flannagan.
"This combined with an active lifestyle, and awareness of the symptoms and risk factors, could help protect you from the UK's second biggest cancer killer," he added.
Every year about 36,000 people in the UK find out they have bowel cancer, and 16,500 die from it.
Men eat a lot of red and processed meat compared to women. 42% of men, compared to 12% of women eat more than an average of 90g a day.
Peter Baker, Chief Executive of the England and Wales charity Men's Health Forum said:
"Men who enjoy regular breakfast fry-ups or roast beef dinners will be surprised to learn that eating too much red or processed meat might increase their risk of bowel cancer."
He said the advice is not saying men can't occasionally have some sausages for breakfast or enjoy a bacon sandwich, but the evidence shows a need to reconsider how much red and processed meat we eat.
"This is a health benefit surely worth giving up a few sausages for," urged Baker.
To give people an idea of how much they might need to cut down, the NHS Choices website shows the following information on its "Livewell: red meat and bowel cancer" page:
- A Peperami (a spicy pork salami snack) weighs 25g.
- A Big Mac burger weighs 70g.
- A quarter pound beefburger weighs 78g.
- A medium portion of meat from a Sunday roast is about 90g (ie three thin slices of roast lamb, beef or pork equal to about half a slice of bread in size each).
- A 5 oz rump steak weighs 102g.
- A cooked English breakfast of two standard sausages and two thin rashers of bacon contains 130g of processed meat.
- A large doner kebab also weighs about 130g.
- An 8 oz grilled beef steak weighs 163g
--- More info on red meat and bowel cancer (NHS Choices)
Source: Department of Health for England, Men's Health Forum (press releases), NHS Choices (website).
Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD