Harvard Men's Health Watch

Red meat and colon cancer

You are what you eat.

It's a bit of folk wisdom that contains more than a kernel of truth. Diet has a powerful influence on many diseases, including America's number two killer, cancer. But because cancer is so complex, with many genetic and environmental factors affecting risk, the link between your menu and your risk has been hard to decipher. In the case of red meat and colon cancer, however, new research provides a plausible explanation for a long-suspected association.

Establishing a link

Although the results vary, studies from around the world have suggested that a high consumption of meat is linked to an increased risk of colon cancer. In some studies, fresh meat appears culpable; in others, it's processed, cured, or salted meat — but in all cases the worry is confined to red meat, not chicken.

The best evidence comes from a pair of large 2005 studies, one from Europe, the other from the United States. The European research tracked 478,000 men and women who were free of cancer when the study began. During nearly five years of follow-up, 1,329 people were diagnosed with colon cancer. The people who ate the most red meat (about 5 ounces a day or more) were about a third more likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate the least red meat (less than an ounce a day on average). Their consumption of chicken did not influence risk one way or the other, but a high consumption of fish appeared to reduce the risk of colon cancer by about a third. The effects of red meat and fish held up after the results were adjusted for other potential colon cancer risk factors, including body weight, caloric consumption, alcohol consumption, smoking, physical exercise, dietary fiber, and vitamins.

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