New report links red meat to cancer

A report released today recommends that people eat less red and processed meats to reduce the risk of certain cancers.

A report released today recommends that people eat less red and processed meat to reduce the risk of certain cancers.

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) has spend the last five years collating information on the link between lifestyle and cancer. Its report is the most comprehensive ever published on the link between cancer and diet, physical activity and weight and includes 10 recommendations from a panel of 21 international scientists.

The report concludes that there is "convincing" evidence that red meat and processed meats such as ham, bacon, and salami increase the risk of colorectal cancer. It recommends that people should limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat altogether.

"The evidence that red meat, and particularly processed meat, is a cause of colorectal cancer is stronger now than it was in the mid-1990s," states the report.

It recommends that the population average consumption of red meat should be no more than 300g (11oz) a week, which corresponds to the level of consumption of red meat at which the risk of colorectal cancer can clearly be seen to rise. The goal is given in terms of weekly consumption to encourage the perception that red meat need not be a daily food.

Personal recommended consumption is set at 500g (18oz) red meat a day. Lean parts of red meat are thought to present the lowest risk.

The report concludes that the evidence on processed meat is even more clear cut then on red meat and that it is best that processed meat is avoided.

"Processed meats are energy-dense and can also contain high levels of salt. They also tend to be preserved by smoking, curing, or salting, or with the addition of chemical preservatives," it says.

"Some of these methods of preservation are known to generate carcinogen; while the epidemiological evidence that these are causes of cancer is limited, it is a wise precaution to avoid them."

The report emphasises that the overall recommendation is not for diets containing no meat. It acknowledges that foods of animal origin can be nourishing and healthy if consumed in modest amounts and that meat can be a valuable source of nutrients, in particular protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12.

Other recommendations in the report include limiting alcohol consumption, taking regular exercise and avoiding food and drinks that promote weight gain.

Maintaining a healthy weight is identified as one of the most important things that can be done to prevent cancer. The number of types of cancer where there is "convincing" evidence that body fat is a cause has risen from one to six since the last WCRF report published in 1997.

The report's authors say they have produced a list of recommendations not commandments but the findings of the report- particularly where it gives public consumption goals- could influence the government's Cancer Reform Strategy, due by the end of 2007.

"The WCRF report is the most authoritative and exhaustive review done thus far on the prevention of cancer through food, nutrition and physical activity," said Professor Mike Richards, the Government's clinical director for cancer.

"For those of us wanting to lower our risk of developing cancer, the report provides practical lifestyle recommendations.

"The Report also provides public health goals. Both will form an important element for the forthcoming Cancer Reform Strategy."