Bacon for breakfast or a steak for dinner may be popular go-to meals for someone monitoring their carb intake, but could these choices be increasing their risk of bowel cancer?

This is the latest claim according to a study published yesterday in the International Journal of Epidemiology. The study was conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Oxford who investigated the association between meat consumption and colorectal (bowel) cancer.

The researchers analysed the data from almost half a million people who were involved in the UK Biobank study and found that people who ate red and processed meat four or five times a week had a 20% increased risk of colorectal cancer compared to those who ate it less than twice a week.

Should we hold the bacon?

Despite this alarming result, the study was met with some criticism by healthcare professionals who highlighted several flaws in the analysis and conclusion.

Firstly, the study was an epidemiological study, meaning that the researchers were not able to conclude that meat consumption increased the risk of colorectal cancer, only that there was an association. This means that there may have been other factors which could have influenced the results. For example, the questionnaire that measured food intake did not consider whether the red and processed meats were eaten with other foods, such as a high carb burger bun or sugary sauce. Evidence has suggested that sugar intake may be associated with an increased risk of cancer.

Additionally, when looking at the results for the association between red meat only and cancer risk, the association was near insignificant, therefore concluding that both red and processed meats increase cancer risk may be misleading.

Another point to note was that the association between red and processed meat and cancer risk was only found in men, indicating the possibility that the results were either down to chance or that there is a difference in risk between men and women. Nonetheless, this would have affected how generalisable these findings were to the general population.

What’s the take-home message?

While recent research has claimed that red and processed meat consumption has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, sometimes it’s worth delving a little deeper into the research before deciding if these findings give us cause for concern.

Eating a diet rich in real, unprocessed foods is no doubt more nutrient-dense than one high in refined, processed foods, but if you’re considering including processed meats in your diet, consider checking the ingredients label for any hidden carbs and choose processed meat with a high meat content.


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