The Red Meat Debate – Is It Safe?

Fatty Meat showing subcutaneous fat and intramuscular fat

Red Meat Under the Spotlight

Red meat has the potential to be very important in our diet. It is a rich source of protein, which is essential for athletic development (muscles) and also contains iron, zinc and phosphorus, plus vitamins B12, thiamin and roboflavin. Red meat is also one of the best sources of an antioxidant called Alpha Lipoic Acid, and contains creatine, which also aids muscular growth. However, various studies over the years have highlighted the health problems linked to the consumption of red meat.

British Meat Industry and the World Cancer Research Fund

There has been a debate between the British meat industry (which consists of the National Beef Association, the National Sheep Association and the National Farmers’ Union) and the World Cancer Research Fund.


In the report on bowel cancer published in 2007, the main concerns were surrounding processed red meats. Meats such as salami and ham are still considered to be very unhealthy, and pose great risk to health. The increased salt content, plus the additional saturated fat in salami, is bed for cardiovascular health.

However, there has been some criticism on the scientific method, and also on the filtering of data and omission of research that does not provide any conclusive link between red meat and increased risk of cancer.

In one study carried out by the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition-Oxford (EPIC-Oxford), subjects that consumed a vegetarian diet experienced more cases of bowel cancer than non-vegetarians.

“Our findings did come as something of a surprise. At the simplest level if meat causes colorectal cancer you would expect to see lower rates in the vegetarians, and we didn’t. It’s definitely a really tricky area. It’s an enigma – nobody knows the truth. We can be much clearer on the relationship between obesity and cancer, or alcohol and cancer, because it’s relatively easy to measure these things. Understanding the exact role specific foods play is much harder to quantify. There is a lot of evidence for meat, but it’s not completely compelling.” Professor Tim Key, Lead Researcher on the Oxford study.

So the jury is still out on the meat debate. Our advice is this: eat lean red meat as part of a healthy balanced diet. Do not fry it, trim the fat, and avoid processed meats such as sausages and hams. Also do not consume it everyday, instead also eat plenty of poultry and fish, which also provide a rich source of protein and essential fats and minerals.

It seems that every month there is a new guideline, or a new scientific report, which turns what we already knew about healthy eating on its head. This is doing the same. When buying meat go for quality over quantity and enjoy it!

Processed Meat Increases Colonic Cancer Risk

The traditional English breakfast, the fry up, has yet more bad press. In addition to the problems of its high salt, high fat, high cholesterol and it generally being very bad for you – it is commonly referred to as being a “heart attack on a plate“, researchers have discovered that eating too much processed meat, which includes sausages and bacon, causes a 63 per cent higher risk of developing bowel cancer. Bowel cancer is on of the biggest cancer killers in the UK and USA, but it is often overlooked, with lung cancer and breast cancer receiving most attention.

The evidence is so strong the World Cancer Research Fund suggests that we should pretty much give up processed meats completely. The WCRF warned that eating 150g of processed meat a day – equivalent to about two sausages and three rashers of bacon – increases bowel cancer risk by 63 per cent.

Medical and scientific expert for the World Cancer Research Fund, Professor Martin Wiseman, said:

For some people, having a fry-up with bacon and sausages might seem like a good way to start the day. But if you are doing this regularly, then you are significantly increasing your risk of bowel cancer, which is one of the most common cancers in the UK. ” Professor Martin Wiseman, 2008

The study also revealed that 2 in 3 people are not aware of the link between processed meat and cancer.

This research only confirms what has been suggested by studies for many years. Colonic cancer is a real problem, and empirical evidence has for a long time shown the relationship between the over consumption of red meat and processed meat with the development of bowel cancer.

However, as we know, eating a full English breakfast everyday also leads to weight gain in a majority of cases. Professor Wiseman is quick to point out that the processed meat is not the only bad thing about a cooked breakfast. Fry ups are usually very high in calories so anyone who eats a cooked breakfast on a regular basis is going to be consuming far too many calories every day. This leads to overweightness and obesity which also increase the risk of developing cancer.

The actual reason for the increased risk of bowel cancer is not clear, but studies have made it clear that healthy diet alone can reduce the likelihood of all forms of cancer occurring by approximately 30%. This means that 1 in 3 cancer sufferers may have been able to prevent their illness simply by eating a healthy diet. When you combine this with the fact that smoking causes a majority of lung cancers, a good diet and healthy lifestyle has the potential to reduce cancer by about 70%. All that is needed is to change the eating habits of a nation.

Another Warning To Reduce Red And Processed Meat

In February 2011 there was a new warning to reduce red meat and processed meats following new studies that have found that too much red meat leads to a greater risk of developing bowel cancer.

Jessica Harris from Cancer Research UK told the BBC that they have been following the research which has been ongoing for many years now and has included hundreds of thousands of people. This is not a warning resulting from a study on just a small group of people, it is a large-scale human study that has produced this warning.

The main problem meats are:

  • Processed meat – generally all processed meat
  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork
  • Sausages
  • Bacon

The research looked at other food sources and found the chicken and fish did not lead to any increase in cases of bowel cancer.

The advice given is to reduce red meat consumption, but not to eliminate it completely. Red meat provides a vital source of iron which is deficient or close to deficient in many diets.

Just making a few small dietary changes could be enough to eradicate the risk of developing bowel cancer. Researchers have suggested that consuming no more than 70 grams of red meat a day should sufficiently reduce the risk of bowel cancer while still providing enough iron.

Often reports of this type of research is ignored by the public. The tabloid press often sensationalize the research and emphasize that red meat kills etc., however really the purpose of this research is to make us aware that we need to make some small changes to our diets for long-term health.

Many years ago the World Health Organization reported that on average the people who lived the longest ate a mostly vegetarian diet and also consumed fewer calories each day than current guidelines recommend.

With the rising rates of cancer and diabetes, both of which seem to be aggravated by poor diet with too much saturated fat, sugar, processed meats and red meat, it really does seem like the secret to a long and healthy life is to consume a simple diet which is varied, consists of most low GI carbohydrates and a limited amount of animal produce. Some animal products seem only to improve health, such as fish, poultry and eggs. It is mostly meat from mammals which is higher in saturated fat which seems to be the biggest problem.

For long-term health consume a wide variety of foods without being excessive in any one individual food type. Do not deprive yourself either, small treats on occasion are perfectly fine.

Some studies have shown that people who drink a glass of wine or beer each day often live longer than those who do not and although sugar is a major cause of obesity, sugar in moderation is perfectly healthy. In fact, athletes consume glucose based drinks which are practically pure sugar in liquid form. The key is, as usual, to eat a healthy and balanced diet.

So Called Healthy Fat May Cause Bowel Cancer

Research has shown that the fats found in margarine, consumed by many as they are not saturated (causing heart disease) may actually increase bowel cancer. The problem lies with the presence of linoleic acid. In fact, these fats may be responsible for 1/3 of all bowel cancer cases.

Also, researchers found that a diet rich in omega 3 fatty acid, which is present in oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and herring, reduced the risk of developing ulcerative colitis by 77%. The researchers from EPIC (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) admit further work is required in this field.

References and Resources

Dietary fibre in food and protection against colorectal cancer in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC): an observational study“.  Bingham SA, Day NE, Luben R, et al. (May 2003). Lancet 361 (9368): 1496–501.doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(03)13174-1. PMID Abstract:

The WCRF provides several publications that are available online, and are free to download. These provide invaluable advice on lifestyle choices for helping to reduce the risk of developing cancer.

More like this in the Diet and Nutrition section

  2 comments for “The Red Meat Debate – Is It Safe?

  1. Fidel Vaughn
    May 18, 2013 at 9:01 am

    There are several factors that people who have a lower risk of bowel cancer have in common. These include having diets high in fibre, fruit and vegetables and lower in processed and red meat. People who have regular daily exercise are also less likely to get bowel cancer. People who are overweight or obese have a slightly higher risk of getting bowel cancer. However it does not automatically follow that, for example, a change in diet or losing weight will reduce bowel cancer risk.

  2. MotleyHealth
    May 20, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Very true, healthy eating and regular exercise can help ward off all disease and health conditions.

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