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Eating even the moderate amounts of red and processed meat sanctioned by government guidelines increases the likelihood of developing bowel cancer, according to the largest UK study of the risks ever conducted.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) suggests anyone who eats more than 90g of red or processed meat per day should try to cut down to 70g or less, because of the known link with bowel cancer. The NHS describes 90g of red meat as “equivalent to around three thinly cut slices of beef, lamb or pork, where each slice is about the size of half a piece of sliced bread”.

Processed meat includes sausages, bacon and ham. A cooked breakfast with two “typical British” sausages and two rashers of bacon would clock up 130g, the NHS advises.

A five-year study of half a million men and women who have signed up to the UK Biobank research project found those who were more or less keeping to the guidelines, eating on average 76g of red or processed meat per day, had a 20% increased risk of bowel cancer compared with those who averaged 21g a day.

The risk increased by 20% with each extra slice of ham or rasher of bacon (roughly 25g) the study participants ate, and by 19% with each thick slice of roast beef or the edible part of a lamb cutlet (about 50g).

The study also found heavier drinkers of alcohol had an increased risk – up by 24% among those who drank the most alcohol compared with those who drank the least. Eating fibre in the form of breakfast cereals and bread had a protective effect, however. In January, a study commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) reported fibre also protects against heart disease. Read more

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