Will Eating Meat Increase My Risk of Colorectal Cancer?   

Will Eating Meat Increase My Risk of Colorectal Cancer?

plate of meat

December 05, 2023

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Tricia Scott-Sahler

As much as many of us love a good hamburger or steak, research has shown a connection between colorectal cancer and a high intake of red meat and processed meat.

“The American Institute of Cancer Research has listed red meat as ‘probably carcinogenic’ and suggests limiting your intake to 12–18 oz. weekly,” says Tricia Scott-Sahler, registered dietitian at John Theurer Cancer Center at Totowa. “They suggest one mechanism may be that heme iron, which is present in red meat and processed meat, may lead to the production of free radicals that damage DNA and promote the formation of nitroso compounds, which may create damage within the gut that leads to cancer.”

In addition, cooking meat at high temperatures, such as grilling or pan-searing, can lead to the production of cancerous substances called heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are linked to colorectal cancer.

“Diets higher in processed meats also tend to be higher in dietary fat, specifically saturated fat. This can increase your risk of obesity, heart disease, chronic inflammation, and colorectal cancer,” says Madison Schenke, registered dietitian at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

Other Risk Factors for Colorectal Cancer

A number of dietary factors in excess can increase your risk of colorectal cancer:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meat
  • Fatty and fried foods
  • Added sugars and simple carbohydrates
  • Cooking meat at high temperatures
  • Low-fiber diet
  • Low vitamin B6 intake
  • Low calcium intake

In addition, other factors can increase your risk for colorectal cancer, including: 

  • Gender and age
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol Intake
  • Ethnicity
  • Chronic conditions/diabetes
  • Insulin resistance
  • Family history
  • Androgen deprivation therapy
  • Tobacco
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity/prolonged sitting

What to Eat to Decrease Your Risk of Colorectal Cancer

“The best way to decrease your risk of colorectal cancer is by consuming nutrient-rich foods such as non-starchy vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, whole grains, tofu and fish such as salmon,” says Geanella Vera-Avellan, registered dietitian at Hackensack Meridian Health and Wellness Center in Eatontown. 

Geanella lays out the benefits of eating more plants: 

  • Plant foods have antioxidants that may protect against cancer such as carotenoids, lycopene and selenium.
  • Legumes, green bananas, nuts, oatmeal and other whole grains produce short-chain fatty acids that may have anti-cancer properties.
  • Foods high in vitamin B6 such as chickpeas, tofu, bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes and salmon are associated with lowering the risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Foods high in calcium such as edamame, yogurt, cheese, tofu and dark leafy greens may decrease the risk of colorectal cancer.

Screening is also important to prevent colorectal cancer. People at low risk of colon cancer should begin screening with colonoscopy at 45 years of age; people at high risk—those with precancerous polyps or inflammatory bowel disease, for example—should start earlier at the direction of their doctor.

Where to Find Reliable Information Nutrition and Cancer Risk

The internet can be a blessing and a curse, and for every reliable source of information, there is a source of misinformation around which foods and ingredients can cause cancer. How do you sift through the noise?

  • Look for scientific literature that’s peer-reviewed.
  • Aim to find experimental research—not observational research. The gold standard is research that is a randomized control trial.
  • Break down the study you are referencing to assess its credibility:
    • Are the results statistically significant?
    • How large is the study? The bigger, the better.
    • How recent is the study? Keep your search in a five-year window.
    • How diverse is the study? The more diverse, the better.

Next Steps & Resources:


The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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