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Higher meat intake increases the risk of colorectal cancer, but there is little evidence of an association between meat consumption and other common cancers, according to a new study published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

In the UK, someone is diagnosed with cancer every two minutes, highlighting the importance of research on potential risk factors. Previous research found associations between red and processed meat and colorectal cancer risk, but research about other cancers was still unclear.

Lead author, Dr Anika Knuppel and her colleagues at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, Nuffield Department of Population Health, examined associations between red, processed meat and poultry intake and 20 common cancers.

The researchers used data from the UK Biobank cohort. The study of half a million UK adults asked participants who were recruited between 2006-2010 about their lifestyle and food intake. Their responses were linked to data from cancer registries to identify new cases of cancer over time. The researchers included 474,996 participants who were cancer-free at the beginning of the study. In seven years, 28,955 participants were diagnosed with cancer.

‘We found that high red and processed meat intake increased the risk of colorectal cancer especially in men. Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men, making our findings of particular relevance to them,’ said Dr Knuppel. ‘Our findings support public health advice in the UK to reduce red and processed meat intake to no more than 70 grams per day.’

The researchers examined whether participants who ate a lot of meat at the beginning of the study had a higher risk of cancer than those who ate little meat. They found that high intakes of red and processed meat increased the risk for colorectal cancer by 32% per 70 grams per day. This amount equals three rashers of bacon or a quarter-pounder beef burger.

There was little evidence for associations between meat intake and other cancers, and poultry intake was not associated with cancer risk.

‘We were not able to clearly distinguish the results between red and processed meat because most participants who ate a lot of red meat also ate a lot of processed meat,’ Anika Knuppel added. ‘Cancer inducing components in red and processed meat that act locally when they reach the bowel, might account for the findings. This could explain why red and processed meat intake was only linked to colorectal cancer and not to other cancers.

‘Although all findings considered participants’ socio-economic circumstances, other lifestyle factors and dietary intake, we cannot rule out that these differences could explain our findings to some extent. More research investigating the broad role of meat in cancer risk is needed to explore our findings further.’

The research was supported by the Wellcome Our Planet Our Health (Livestock, Environment and People - LEAP) programme, Cancer Research UK, the UK Medical Research Council, and the World Cancer Research Fund.