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A Red Flag for Red Meat

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

You are what you eat. As simple as the phrase may sound, it contains more than a kernel of truth. What we choose to eat has a profound influence on the progression of many diseases, as one's diet can be a direct reflection of their health. Nutrition has an especially powerful impact on a certain disease that plagues Americans everyday: cancer. According to the CDC, cancer leads as the second cause of death in the United States and its development is largely influenced by dietary factors [1]. But because cancer is so complex, it has been a challenge to prove a definite link between the food choices one makes and the risk of getting the disease. Despite this, when it comes to red meat and colon cancer, research has provided strong evidence suggesting the two are associated.

So how do we establish a link? While critics have scoffed at the idea that something as simple as red meat can be a risk factor in colon cancer, results suggest otherwise. The strongest evidence comes from a pair of large studies conducted in the US and Europe in 2005. European researchers used a sample of roughly 475,000 cancer- free men and women and tracked them for over a period of 5 years. At the end, 1,329 individuals were diagnosed with colon cancer, and the people who ate the most red meat were roughly ⅓ more likely to develop the disease compared to those who ate the least [2]. Additionally, the US study found a statistically significant relationship between high consumption of red meat and incidence of colorectal cancer [3]. Such results are convincing enough for people to think twice about consuming their next ribeye, but what is in the meat that's red?

Science has proposed a number of culprits in red meat that make it concerning. A popular theory points at HCAs, or heterocyclic amines. HCAs are chemicals that are emitted when meat is cooked at high temperatures [4]. Though preservatives in processed links are identifiable carcinogens, the association between fresh meat and colon cancer indicates that they cannot be the complete answer.

High levels of NOCs, also known as N-nitroso compounds, prove to be one of the bigger contributors. These chemicals, which are classified as carcinogens, can induce DNA mutations in cells lining the colon [5]. While this finding is important, it still does not prove that red meat causes cancer. Though we have not proved causation, research indicates that prevention of colon cancer is possible by raising awareness about the harms of red meat.

You don’t have to go cold turkey on red meat to be cancer free, but science nods to the idea of limiting one's consumption for the best results. Fill your plate with more vegetables, incorporate more color into your meals, and do not let meat be the main attraction. Limit your caloric intake reasonably when consuming meat, and retrain your brain to think of it as a side dish, not the main course. Making small, gradual changes will add up overtime and have profound effects that your colon will thank you for.

Even though the American diet promotes a meat and potatoes approach, it is possible to avert the risk of colon cancer by making healthy choices when a menu is in your hands.


  1. Moleyar-Narayana, P., & Ranganathan, S. (2021). Cancer Screening. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing.

  2. Battaglia Richi, E., Baumer, B., Conrad, B., Darioli, R., Schmid, A., & Keller, U. (2015). Health Risks Associated with Meat Consumption: A Review of Epidemiological Studies. International Journal for Vitamin and Nutrition Research. Internationale Zeitschrift fur Vitamin- und Ernahrungsforschung. Journal International de Vitaminologie et de Nutrition, 85(1-2), 70–78.

  3. Chan, D. S., Lau, R., Aune, D., Vieira, R., Greenwood, D. C., Kampman, E., & Norat, T. (2011). Red and processed meat and colorectal cancer incidence: meta-analysis of prospective studies. PloS one, 6(6), e20456.

  4. Zamora, R., & Hidalgo, F. J. (2020). Formation of heterocyclic aromatic amines with the structure of aminoimidazoazarenes in food products. Food Chemistry, 313, 126128.

  5. Lijinsky W. (1999). N-Nitroso compounds in the diet. Mutation Research, 443(1-2), 129–138.

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