Link between meat and colon cancer

What is the link between the Consumption of Meat and colorectal cancer?


There is growing evidence that suggests that eating red and processed meat can increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer.

Recent research has found a link between eating red and processed meat and an increased risk of colorectal cancer. This is because these types of meats contain chemicals and compounds that can damage the cells in the colon and large intestine, leading to cancer.

What’s more, these types of meat often contain large amounts of saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium which can contribute to other health issues such as heart disease and diabetes. This further increases cancer risk.

As a doctor I have seen many cases of poor nutrition in people, most people either due to low income or a lack of time are not eating good healthy diets and this is affecting health not only in the short term but also in the long term. Colorectal cancer is a major health concern, In Malta, colorectal cancer is the second most common cancer; every year around 260 persons are diagnosed and around 110 die from the disease.

In this article I try to summarize the link between meat and the formation of colorectal cancer.

What Is Colorectal Cancer?

Colorectal cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer in the United States. It affects the colon and rectum and is the second-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States.

Colorectal cancer usually develops over years, starting as small, non-cancerous polyps that grow on the inner wall of your large intestine or rectum. Depending on their type and size, they may go unnoticed or cause symptoms like diarrhea or rectal bleeding. The polyps can turn into cancer if not detected early or removed.

Most colorectal cancers are the result of lifestyle-related factors, including eating a diet high in red and processed meats, a sedentary lifestyle and smoking. These factors increase your risk for developing colorectal cancer, so it’s important to be aware of them.

How Is Colorectal Cancer Connected to Eating Meat?

Research has connected eating red and processed meat with an increased risk for colorectal cancer[1]. The exact mechanism is not well understood, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified processed meats as a “Group 1 carcinogen” — meaning there is convincing evidence that processed meats may cause cancer.[2]

That said, researchers believe that the high-fat content in meats can increase levels of bile acids, which have been linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer. Bile acids are produced by the body and help to break down fat, but high levels of bile acids may damage DNA when they come in contact with cells lining the colon. This damage can lead to cancerous growth over time.

Another possible factor is the presence of certain compounds known as nitrosamines in red and processed meats. Nitrite preservatives commonly used in processed meats combine with saliva and stomach acid to form nitrosamines, which are known carcinogens that could potentially lead to colorectal cancer.

Evidence of Why Eating Certain Meats Can Increase the Risk of Colon Cancer

Eating processed and red meats has been linked to an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer. Studies have identified several elements in certain meats that are thought to be the cause, including:

Nitrates and Nitrites

Nitrates and nitrites are compounds used to preserve meat products such as hotdogs, bacon, sausages, and ham. These substances can react with other chemicals found in food to form N-nitroso compounds, which can increase the risk of colon cancer.[3]

Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs)

HCAs are formed when proteins in beef, pork, poultry and fish are cooked at very high temperatures. Studies have suggested that consuming large amounts of these HCAs may increase the risk of colorectal cancer.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)

PAHs are chemicals formed when fat drips onto a heat source while food is cooked or grilled. Inhalation of PAHs has been linked to higher colon cancer risks. Although direct exposure through inhalation is low when grilling meat indoors or outdoors, increased levels have been detected on the surfaces of grilled meats.

What Do Nutritionists Recommend for Reducing the Risk of Colon Cancer?

Nutritionists have long been recommending meat-free diets for reducing the risk of colorectal cancer. While cutting out meat altogether may not be realistic for all people, research does suggest that reducing the amount of red and processed meats can help reduce your risk of colon cancer.

This advice is based on several pieces of evidence:

  1. Studies have found a link between diets high in red and processed meats and an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
  2. Phosphates, a compound found in processed meats, have been linked to inflammation and oxidative stress that are associated with the development of colorectal cancer.
  3. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified processed meats as a carcinogen due to their potential to cause colorectal cancer.

The truth is, nutritionists may not have all of the answers yet when it comes to understanding how our diets affect our health—but they do know enough to encourage us to make healthier choices when it comes to the food we eat. Reducing or eliminating meat consumption is just one way you can decrease your risk of developing colorectal cancer.

How to Reduce Your Intake of Processed Meats

Cutting down on your processed meat intake is one way to reduce your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Processed meats typically include products like bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausages and other cured or smoked meats.

How to Reduce Intake

Here are some tips to help you reduce the number of processed meats in your diet:

  • Choose unprocessed or minimally processed lean proteins instead. Beans, legumes and fish are all healthy alternatives.
  • Substitute plant-based proteins such as tofu and lentils in place of some animal protein sources.
  • Choose lower fat versions such as chicken and turkey breast instead of red meat.
  • Eat fewer sandwiches and convenience foods that contain processed meats, especially those high in fat and sodium.
  • Limit portion sizes when consuming meals with processed meats, such as bacon or sausage.

By incorporating some of these tips into your everyday diet, you can greatly reduce the amount of processed meat that you consume – potentially lowering your risk for colorectal cancer.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most common cancer in both men and women in the United States. If you are concerned about your own individual risk, there are some questions that you should ask your doctor.

What kind of screening should I have?

Most colorectal cancers occur in people without a family history of the disease, which means that screening is key to early detection. Your doctor can discuss screening options with you, such as stool tests, a colonoscopy or other imaging tests.

How often should I be screened?

The frequency of screenings will depend on your individual risk factors and what type of test you choose to have done. Generally speaking, adults over 50 should discuss screening with their doctor and adults at higher risk may need to start screenings earlier or be screened more frequently.

What lifestyle changes can I make?

Research has established that certain lifestyle factors can affect your risk for colorectal cancer and other types of cancers. Things like diet, exercise and alcohol consumption can play a role in overall health and cancer prevention. Talking to your doctor about how these habits may impact your personal risk is an important step toward preventive care.


In conclusion, research continues to suggest that consuming processed red meats may increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer, particularly in those with a family or personal history of the disease. While there is still much to be learned about how meat consumption and other lifestyle factors can contribute to the development of cancer, the evidence strongly suggests that reducing meat consumption and eating a more plant-based diet may play a role in reducing the risk.

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