Bowel cancer: Dr Philippa Kaye lists the symptoms
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Successive studies over the years have linked red and processed meat – which includes the British staple bacon – to bowel cancer. But one of the most notable was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The study looked at whether people who eat an average of 76 grams of processed and red meat a day – approximately three slices of ham – are still at increased risk of bowel cancer.
“This is similar to the average amount people in the UK eat each day, and falls in a somewhat grey area within Government guidelines – which state anyone who eats more than 90 grams a day should cut this to no more than 70 grams a day,” reports Cancer Research UK.
The study analysed data from half a million UK adults over almost seven years and found that moderate processed and red meat eaters – those eating 79g per day on average – had a 32 percent increased risk of bowel cancer compared to people eating less than 11g of red and processed meat daily.
To put this in context, for every 10,000 people in the study who ate less than 11 grams of red and processed meat a day, 45 were diagnosed with bowel cancer.
Eating 79 grams of red and processed meat a day caused 14 extra cases of bowel cancer per 10,000 people.
These figures are just for the independent effect of meat consumption, as they take into account other differences between these groups of people, for example sex, deprivation, smoking, physical activity, alcohol intake, other aspects of diet, reproductive factors, and body mass index.
Professor Tim Key, who co-led the study, said at the time that while the impact of cutting back on processed meat might be smaller than quitting smoking, it’s still important.
“Everyone eats and everyone is at risk of colorectal cancer,” he said.
“So any increase in risk makes a difference when we look at the whole population.”
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What counts as red or processed meat?
“Red” meat is any meat that’s a dark red colour before it’s cooked – this means meats like beef and lamb, but also includes pork.
“Processed” meat is meat that’s not sold fresh, but instead has been cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved in some way (think bacon, sausages, hot dogs, ham, salami, and pepperoni). But this doesn’t include fresh burgers or mince.
Both of these types of meat are distinct from “white” meats, such as fresh chicken or turkey, and fish (neither of which appear to increase your risk of cancer).
It might therefore help to swap red meat for chicken or fish. Or use beans and pulses in meals instead of meat.
Foods to reduce your risk
According to Cancer Research UK, eating lots of fibre reduces your risk of bowel cancer.
“Eating too little fibre causes around 30 in 100 bowel cancer cases (around 30 percent) in the UK,” notes the charity.
As the health body points out, you can boost the fibre in your diet by choosing whole grain versions of foods.
To get more fibre in your diet try:
- Swapping to brown rice, pasta or bread
- Swapping your snack to low calorie popcorn rather than crisps
- Choosing wholegrain breakfast cereals
- Eating more fruit and vegetables high in fibre, such as peas and Raspberries.
There are other ways besides diet to modify your risk of bowel cancer.
Quitting smoking is high up on the list.
“People who smoke cigarettes are more likely to develop bowel cancer, as well as other types of cancer and other serious conditions, such as heart disease,” warns the NHS.
What’s more, drinking alcohol has been shown to be associated with an increased risk of bowel cancer, particularly if you regularly drink large amounts, it notes.
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