Does eating a lot of red meat increase your risk of developing colorectal cancer? That’s a question that has been debated by scientists for years.
In 2013, an international team of scientists reported the discovery of a gene-diet interaction that could help explain why red meat—especially processed meats—may raise the risk of colorectal cancer. Now just four years later, a Swedish study that examined nearly 26,000 men and women suggests the association between meat intake and colorectal cancer may differ by the mean type consumed, by gender, location of the tumor in the bowel.
So what didn’t seem to play a role? Body weight.
A Leading Cause of Cancer
This year, an estimated 150,000 Americans will be diagnosed with colorectal cancer, making the disease one of the leading causes of cancer. Family history, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, inactivity, age and alcohol consumption, all appear to raise the risk of colorectal cancer.
So does what you eat. A diet rich in fruit and vegetables seems to help protect against colorectal cancer, while one with a lot of red meat, especially processed red meat, may increase risk. For this reason, the American Cancer Society, the American Institute for Cancer Research, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service and other health groups advise limiting amounts of red meat and processed meat.
Possible Gene-Diet Interaction
The 2013, which were first presented at the American Society for Human Genetics annual meeting in Boston, came from studying 9,287 people with colorectal cancer and 9,100 others who didn’t have the disease.
Led by Ulrike Peters of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, the team also carefully examined nearly three million gene variants that are associated with the consumption of red meat and processed meat, such as hot dogs, as well as fruit and vegetables. (As you know, genes are the material found on the chromosomes in each of our cells.)
So what did they find? Without getting into all the scientific details, they discovered a “significant interaction” between one genetic variant and processed meat on a region of a chromosome linked to several forms of cancer.
What Does This Mean for You?
As a member of the scientific team noted, “it is conceivable that selected individuals at higher risk of colorectal cancer, based on genomic profiling, could be targeted for screening, diet modification and other prevention strategies.”
This year, a team of Swedish researchers reported that that there are some nuances between those who develop colorectal cancer versus those who don’t. For example, beef intake appeared to be protection against colon cancer—except in men who were big meat consumers. Yet, this group had a higher risk of rectal cancer.
The research team also concluded that colorectal and colon cancer were linked to a high intake of pork, while processed meat was linked with a high risk of colorectal cancer in men. On the other hand, fish consumption appeared to be protective against rectal cancer, while body weight status—often thought to increase risk—appeared not to have a statistically significant impact on colorectal cancer risk.
If you’re feeling confused, here’s what American Cancer Society recommends to reduce your risk of developing cancer:
- Get screened for colon cancer.
- Reach and maintain a healthy weight
- Be physically active; limit sedentary and screen time
- Eat at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits daily
- Choose whole grains over refined grain products
- Limit the amount of red meat and processed meat eaten
- If you drink alcohol, limit the amount to one drink per day for women, two per day for men
- Avoid all tobacco use
What do you do to decrease your risk of colorectal cancer? Share your comments here, or send tips to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editorial note: This blog was first published at EverydayHealth.com. This version was updated on August 17, 2017.