The truth about men, meat and cancer

26 November 2015 | Clare Hughes

Cancer Council research released last month gave us fresh insights into how some common lifestyle factors contribute to cancer rates among Australian men.

Overall, we found that around a third of all cancer cases each year were caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices. That’s 37,000 cancer cases in men and women that could have been prevented.

The top 5 causes of preventable cancers in men were:

  • Smoking
  • Sun exposure
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Eating too much red and processed meats
  • Being overweight or obese

Most people know that smoking and sun exposure increase their cancer risk. Fewer people know that alcohol; being overweight, and eating too much red and processed meat put them at risk of cancer.

There’s a good chance you saw, read and heard the news headlines when the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that red and processed meats cause cancer. They found enough evidence to conclude that processed meats like ham, bacon, salami and sausages are a Grade 1 carcinogen, ranking it alongside tobacco, alcohol and asbestos as a known cause of cancer.

However, that doesn’t mean a short cut of bacon is as dangerous as a cigarette. WHO experts assessed the strength and consistency of the evidence, not the likelihood that eating processed meats will give you cancer. This simply means that the evidence suggesting processed meat causes cancer is as strong as evidence that smoking tobacco will give you cancer.

To put it into context, of the 37,000 cancer cases that could be prevented by making healthier lifestyles choices, around 15,500 were linked to smoking while 2,600 were caused by eating to much red and processed meat.

The evidence linking red meat and cancer, wasn’t as convincing. The WHO concluded that red meat ‘probably’ causes cancer too, but not to the same degree as processed meats.

So how much meat should we be eating?

It’s not all bad news and Cancer Council is not recommending we become a nation of vegetarians. It’s high consumption of red meat that’s the cause for concern. We know red meat is an important source of protein, iron, zinc and vitamin B12. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating recommends we eat moderate amounts of red meat; around 65g of cooked lean red meat each day or a larger portion 3-4 times a week to around 455g in total. Processed meats should only be eaten occasionally, much like cakes, crisps, soft drinks and fried foods.

The old adage ‘everything in moderation’ applies here. However figures showed that nearly all Australian men (98%) were eating more red and processed meats than recommended, compared with only half of women. Nearly 1,800 cancer cases (2.8%) in Aussie men each year were a result of eating too much red and processed meat.


Cancer Council recommends you eat only a moderate amount of lean red meat, and limit or avoid processed meat. Chances are, when it comes to processed meat, you’re eating it more than occasionally. It could be the ham sandwich at lunchtime, the pepperoni on Friday night’s pizza, the prosciutto in your home-made pasta sauce and the bacon in your Sunday morning fry-up. If you’re having processed meat more than once a week, it’s time to cut back.

Take a look at how much red meat you’re eating each week, too. Try swapping beef and lamb for chicken or fish. Reduce the amount of meat on your plate and boost the amount of veg. Eat more legumes like lentils and beans, and have more meat-free meals.

Cutting back on the amount of red and processed meat you eat is one simple step you can take today to reduce your risk of getting cancer in the future.

Do a quick quiz to access your risk of cancer and find tips to reduce your risk.