Even moderate amounts of ham, bacon and red meat are linked to bowel cancer, according to new research which found the health risks are greater than previously thought.
People who stick to NHS guidelines on red and processed meat consumption still increase their risk of bowel cancer by a fifth compared with those who eat very small amounts, a study part-funded by Cancer Research UK found.
The Department of Health has said that while meat is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, people should cut their intake of red and processed meat to about 70g per day, which is the average daily consumption in the UK.
The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) said there is strong evidence that eating processed meats like salami, bacon and ham is a cause of bowel cancer, while eating a lot of red meats like beef, lamb or pork also increases the risk.
For the new research, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, experts examined data from 475,581 people aged 40-69 at the start of the study and followed them for an average of 5.7 years.
The study found that people consuming an average of 76g per day of red and processed meat had a 20 per cent higher risk of bowel cancer compared with those who ate 21g per day.
For red meat only, the risk was 15 per cent higher for people who ate 54g per day, about one thick slice of roast beef or one lamb chop on average, compared with those who had 8g per day.
For processed meat only, the risk was 19 per cent higher for those who had an average of 29g per day, about one rasher of bacon or a slice of ham, compared with those who had an average of 5g per day.
People with a high intake of fibre from bread and breakfast cereals lowered their risk of bowel cancer by 14 per cent.
Cancer Research UK’s expert on diet and cancer, Professor Tim Key, who co-authored the study, said: “Our results strongly suggest that people who eat red and processed meat four or more times a week have a higher risk of developing bowel cancer than those who eat red and processed meat less than twice a week.”
Around one in every 15 men and one in every 18 women will develop bowel cancer during their lifetime.
Existing evidence points to an increased bowel cancer risk for every 50g of processed meat a person eats per day, but the new study found that risk increases at just 25g per day.
Dr Julie Sharp, Cancer Research UK’s head of health information, said: “The Government guidelines on red and processed meat are general health advice and this study is a reminder that the more you can cut down beyond this, the more you can lower your chances of developing bowel cancer.
“This doesn’t necessarily mean cutting out red and processed meat entirely, but you may want to think about simple ways to reduce how much you have and how often.”