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Can eating meat cause cancer?

28th January 2020

Veganuary this year was more popular than ever, and you might have been one of the thousands of people counting down the days until you could have your favourite sausage butty for breakfast again. Or, perhaps you gave up meat for good because you read another newspaper article claiming that too much bacon can give you cancer.

But is that the truth, or just a good headline? Why doesn’t there seem to be a simple yes or no answer when you look for one? We know that it can be tricky to navigate all the information that’s out there, that’s why we’ve asked our cancer experts to do the hard work for you and answer some of the questions you might have on the link between diet and cancer.

Can giving up meat really help prevent cancer?

Currently, there isn’t enough evidence to definitively say that a vegetarian or vegan diet reduces the risk of dying of cancer. But we have seen some evidence that cutting out meat might help prevent certain types of cancer from occurring in the first place. Studies have shown that eating a plant-based or pescatarian diet can help to reduce the risk of stomach, bowel and some blood cancers.

Research into what we eat and how it affects our risk of cancer is always going to be difficult and any results need to be carefully interpreted. When establishing whether something causes cancer, researchers need to consider several other factors – from age to drinking and smoking habits. Even where a person lives can make a difference!

It’s also important to remember that these studies usually depend on the reliability of people self-reporting, often over a long period of time - can you remember what you ate last Monday? Add the fact that cancer can take decades to develop and it’s easier to see why it’s difficult to find clear-cut results.

Should I stop eating meat or not?

There are many reasons a person might decide to eat a plant-based diet, but if you are specifically worried about your cancer risk, here is what we have learnt so far from research conducted by scientists over the last few decades:

  • Processed meat, such as bacon, sausages and ham, can cause bowel cancer and its consumption should be limited.
  • Eating lots of red meat can increase the risk of bowel cancer (the NHS suggests you cut down to 70g a day if you’re eating over 90g)
  • The evidence for white meats is not as clear cut and some research even suggests that eating some white meat and fish might reduce your risk of some cancers.

Currently, the official suggestion is to eat a diet of plenty of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy sources of protein, such as beans or chicken. The diet should be low in processed and red meat and anything high in sugar, salt and fat.

At the moment there are no official recommendations to cut out meat completely, but there is an emphasis on the types of meat you should limit.

At Worldwide Cancer Research, we know that bold research will help us find the answers to questions like this and many others. Currently one of our researchers, Professor Salvador Aznar-Benitah, is studying how certain parts of our diet could help cancer to spread. They are also testing a new treatment that could clamp down on the cancer cells before they have a chance to spread. By funding more projects like this thanks to our generous supporters, we will find more ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer.