Study: Red and Processed Meats Linked With Colon Cancer Risk

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Burger lovers may feel disheartened as the case against red meat continues to grow.

Previous data have linked diets high in red meat, and particularly processed meat like bacon and sausage, to ill health and higher risk of death from cancer and heart disease. Now a new study adds to the evidence finding that people who eat more red and processed meats are more likely to develop colon cancer.

According to the report, which uses data from an ongoing project by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund, people who ate 3.5 ounces of red meat, such as beef, lamb and pork, every day had a 17% increased risk of developing colon cancer, compared with those who ate no red meat. People who ate 7 ounces of red meat a day had a 34% higher risk.

(More on TIME.com: Cured, Smoked Meats Linked With Heart Disease Risk)

Processed meats, including ham, bacon and sausage, were associated with the biggest health hazard: people who ate 3.5 ounces of processed meats a day had a 36% greater chance of developing colon cancer, compared with those who ate none. The more processed meat people ate, the higher their colon cancer risk.

The findings suggest that eating less red meat and cutting out processed meat entirely could slash colon cancer rates. And by adding other healthy lifestyle behaviors to the mix, such as drinking less alcohol, eating more fiber, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight, some 45% of colon cancers — or more than 64,000 cases a year — could be prevented, the authors said.

But rather than suggesting that people cut out red meat altogether, the data advise moderation. The study found that consumption of about 18 ounces of red meat or less per week was associated with very little increase in colon cancer risk.

(More on TIME.com: Are Hot Dogs Better For You Than Roasted Chicken?)

Exactly how red and processed meats may affect a person’s colon cancer risk isn’t clear, but some speculations exist. WebMD reported:

Some research suggests that chemicals called heterocyclicamines, which are produced when meat is cooked at high temperature, may play a role. Processed meats are made by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives such as nitrates. The body converts nitrates into nitrosamines, which are known to increase risk of cancer.

No matter the reason, these findings may be especially important for those with a family history of colon cancer, said Alice Bender of the AICR. “If you have family history, it’s more important than ever to follow these guidelines because they offer potentially some extra protection,” she told WebMD.

Hard-core carnivores won’t be happy being told to cut back on their meat-eating habits, but if you can’t be convinced to eat less, at least try to add fresh vegetables and fruits and whole grains like brown rice to your diet. And while you’re at it, you’d be wise to exercise most days of the week and limit alcohol to one or two drinks a day.

(More on TIME.com: What’s Lurking in Your Meat and Poultry? Probably Staph)

The current study can be found at the Continuous Update Project.

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