Red Meat and Cancer: What You Need To Know

Jan 27, 2017

There are over 100 types of cancer. About every single part in your body is susceptible to the disease. The “Big C”, as some may call it, is considered one of the top 10 causes of death today.

Meat lovers all over the world have been warned. Several reports have been published on the link between red meat and cancer. The most significant report of all comes from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). This is a body of international experts who evaluated all the evidence from over 800 cases to determine the association of cancer and eating meat.

An extensive analysis of over a dozen types of cancer in populations with disparate diets over a 20 year period was made. The IARC has currently confirmed the information that colon cancer is more common among those who consume red and processed meat as their main diet.

These findings may seem devastating to the full-fledged carnivore so it’s understandable that you may not be able to quit red meat cold turkey. To help you make an informed decision however, we’ve put together the following information that you need to know.

What are the types of meats?

Red meat is any meat that’s colored red prior to cooking. This includes meats like beef, pork and lamb.

Processed meat is not sold fresh. They are either cured, salted, smoked or preserved in some way. Examples are bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, salami and pepperoni.

White meat would be fresh chicken, turkey and fish.

Mounting evidence show that bowel cancer is most common in individuals who eat the most red and processed meat, while white meat show the least potential of increasing your risks of cancer.

Processed meat is Group 1 Carcinogen, classified as a definite cause of cancer, according to the IARC. The agency, however did not have sufficient data to indicate how much processed meat is considered dangerous. They were clear to mention, however, that the risk rises with the amount consumed.

Certain chemicals used to cure meat, such as nitrates and nitrites, have been known to convert to cancer-causing compounds in the body. According to Alok Khorana, MD, Director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Program in Cleveland Clinic, “The evidence so far suggests that it’s probably the processing of meat or chemical naturally present within it, that increases cancer risk.”

“Processed meats fall into the same category that cigarette smoking does with lung cancer,” Dr. Khorana says. “In other words, it’s an item that causes cancer at some point in the future if you consume high amounts.”

In what way does red and processed meat cause cancer?

In red meat, a chemical called haem is broken down in our gut and forms N-nitroso compounds. These chemicals are known to damage the cells that line the bowel which other cells in the bowel lining need to reproduce in order to heal. It is the “extra” replication that increases the risks of errors developing in the cells’ DNA, which is primarily the first step towards cancer.

Processed meat, on the other hand, contains chemicals that generate N-nitroso compounds in the gut, such as nitrite preservatives.

The way we prepare our meats can play a role as well. Cooking at high temperatures, such as grilling or barbecuing, can also create chemicals in the meat that may increase the risk of cancer. These chemicals are basically produced in higher levels in red and processed meats compared to other meats.

The evidence so far suggests that it’s likely the processing of the meat, or chemicals naturally present within it, that increases cancer risk.

Can red and processed meat still be part of a healthy diet?

A single meat-based meal is not bad for you. However, regularly eating large amounts of red and processed meat, over a long period of time, is perhaps not a very wise approach towards a long and healthy life. 

Meat is still a good source of some nutrients such as protein, iron and zinc, when consumed in moderation, so the takeaway here is that you should not eat too much, too often.

How much meat should I eat?

Cancer Council recommends eating up to 700 grams of red meat per week to reduce your risk of cancer. For overall good health, we need less than this. A small serving of 65 grams of cooked meat each day or 2 servings (130 grams) 3 to 4 times a week is ideal. It would be best to avoid consuming 455 grams or more of lean cooked red meat per week.

Cancer Council likewise strongly suggests to limit or avoid eating processed meats, which are generally high in fat, salt and nitrates and should be consumed only occasionally.

You can protect your health and boost your ability to fight off cancer by making smart food choices. Increase your intake of foods rich in components that strengthen the immune system. Eat plenty of fruit, fiber and vegetables.


Being one of the leading causes of death today, cancer is a condition that should never be taken lightly. As there is no known cure for most types of cancer, and prevention is truly our best defense. A healthy and balanced diet is always a good preventive measure.

This doesn’t mean that you must eliminate all forms of red meat in your diet. Perhaps it would be best to consider simply cutting down on eating meat, especially if you’re worried about cancer. We can all benefit from the vitamins and nutrients from red meat, as this remains to be a good source of protein and energy.

Eating smaller and fewer portions, or choosing chicken or fish instead while adding vegetables and beans may be the better path towards a healthier lifestyle, which is after all, about enjoying everything in moderation.

MyZenda strives to continually offer information, tips and advice to help you through your journey towards a healthier lifestyle. Sign up at MyZenda today to receive the latest and most up-to-date reports on health and wellness.



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