Most scientists agree that a high intake of meat, particularly red meat, increases an individuals risk of developing certain forms of cancer however there is uncertainty over the extent of the link between the two. Comparing cancer rates and meat consumption across different countries provides some interesting insight on the link between meat consumption and cancer. The table below shows the ten countries with the highest and lowest levels of meat consumption per capita.
Per Capita (kg)
|GDP Per Capita
Clearly high meat consuming countries have higher cancer rates than countries with low meat consumption however the association is complicated by the fact that high meat consuming countries also tend to be high income countries.
High income countries generally have higher cancer rates than low income countries. There are a variety of reasons for this, many unrelated to meat consumption. For example smoking, obesity, and a sedentary lifestyle, are all risk factors for cancer that are more prevalent in high income countries than in developing countries. Furthermore, many cases of cancer go undetected in low-income countries due to a lack of screening programs and poor access to healthcare facilities.
The graph below shows cancer incidence and meat intake after adjustment for GDP per capita. Countries to the right of the vertical axis have higher than expected levels of meat consumption given their income while countries above the horizontal axis have higher than expected cancer rates given their income level.
As can be seen from the graph, even after adjustment of income, high meat consuming countries have much higher cancer rates. Uruguay for example consumes about 95% more meat than would be expected given its income level and has cancer rates more than 40% higher than expected. Mongolia, New Zealand, Denmark, and Australia also have high levels of meat consumption and correspondingly high cancer rates.
On the other end of the spectrum, in India almost half of the population doesn’t eat any meat at all for religious and cultural reasons and as a result, meat consumption is about 90% lower than expected given its income level. Cancer rates in India are also very low – about 40% lower than expected and a massive 68% lower than the age-adjusted rate in the United States. Other countries with relatively low levels of meat consumption include, Japan, Austria, Norway, Turkey, Maldives, South Korea, and Bangladesh. With the exception of South Korea, cancer rates in these countries are much lower than expected.
While the above graph is a relatively simplistic calculation that doesn’t take into account other risk factors for cancer such as country-specific smoking rates, the consistency of the trend across a variety of countries and at different income levels strongly suggests that a high intake of meat plays a significant role in the development of cancer. The trend line on the graph above suggests that a 10% increase in meat intake results in an approximate 5% increase in cancer risk.
Epidemiological studies have produced similar results, this recent study of more than 100,000 men and women from the USA found that those in the top 20% for red meat consumption had a 19% higher cancer risk and a 40% greater risk of cardiovascular disease than those in the bottom 20% for red meat consumption.
A 2009 study, published in the British Journal of Cancer, followed more than 30,000 meat eaters and 20,000 vegetarians from Britain over an average follow up period of 12 years and found that vegetarians were 12% less likely to develop cancer than their meat eating counterparts. Interestingly, risks were significantly lower for forms of cancer not traditionally associated with meat eating such as leukemia and multiple myeloma.
There are several explanations for the link between meat and cancer: Meat is a concentrated source of calories due to an absence of fiber, a relatively low water content, and high amount of fat. As a result, heavy meat eaters tend to consume more calories per day and are therefore at a greater risk of becoming overweight and obese. Obesity is a risk factor for a variety of cancers including post-menopausal breast cancer, colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer, and endometrial cancer.
Those who consume large quantities of meat also tend to have lower intakes of fruit, vegetables, whole-grains, and fiber. High consumption of these may exert a protective effect against a variety of cncers, particularly cancers of the digestive tract.
Cooked red meat contains a variety of potentially carcinogenic compounds including heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Processed meats also have high levels of nitrates and nitrites which are used in the process of curing meat and have been potentially linked to a variety of cancers, particularly bladder and pancreatic cancer.
The World Cancer Research Fund currently recommends individuals limit red meat consumption to 500g cooked red meat a week (approx. 3 servings).
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