Meat, fish, dairy and cancer risk - WCRF International (2024)

Meat, fish, dairy and cancer risk - WCRF International (1)We analyse global research on how consuming meat, fish and dairy products affects the risk of developing cancer.


There is strong evidence that consuming:

  • red meat INCREASES the risk ofcolorectal cancer
  • processed meat INCREASES the risk ofcolorectal cancer
  • Cantonese-style salted fish INCREASES the risk ofnasopharyngeal cancer
  • dairy products DECREASE the risk of colorectal cancer

How does eating meat, fish and dairy affect your risk of cancer?

For red meat, processed meat and Cantonese-style salted fish the evidence shows that, in general, the more people consume, the higher the risk of some cancers. In contrast,the evidenceshowsthat,ingeneral,themoredairyproductspeopleconsume,thelowertheriskofcolorectalcancer.

For people who eat meat, eat no more than moderate amounts of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, and eat little, if any, processed meat
– This is the opinion of our Expert Panel

Cancer Prevention Recommendation

> Limit consumption of red and processed meat

A global recommendation about consumption of Cantonese-style salted fish has not beenmade, as this type of fish is consumed only in specific parts of the world. Nevertheless,the Panel advises that Cantonese-style salted fish should not be consumed.

The Panel did not base a recommendation on the strong evidence that the consumption of dairy products decreases the risk of colorectal cancer as there is some other evidence that is suggestive of an increased risk of prostate cancer, although that evidence fell below the general threshold required for making a recommendation.

What are foods from animal sources?

Animal foods is a term used to describe all foods of animal origin. These foods may be derived from the animal flesh itself (for example, meat, fish and poultry), or foods that are produced by animals (for example, eggs, as well as dairy products such as milk, and products made from milk including cheese, butter, ghee and yoghurt).

Animal foods are generally a good source of protein, but the fat content varies according to the specific species from which they are derived. Dairy products are a good source of calcium. Consumption of foods such as red meat and fish generally increases with economic development, whereas consumption of dairy products is variable, particularly in Asia where many populations are lactose intolerant.

Animal foods such as meat and fish may be processed before consumption by smoking, curing, salting or by adding preservatives. Meat and fish are also often cooked using very high temperatures during frying, grilling (broiling) or barbecuing (charbroiling). These methods of processing and preparation may affect the chemical composition as well as thenutritional value of animal foods.

Mechanisms: the biology linking meat, fish and dairy with cancer

This section covers the primary hypotheses and is not based on a systematic or exhaustive search of the literature.

Cooking meats at high temperatures, prolonged exposure to heat and cooking by various types of grilling results in the formation of heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons both of which have been linked tocolorectal cancerdevelopment in experimental studies.

In addition, haem iron, which is present at high levels in red meat, has been shown to promote colorectal tumorigenesis by stimulating the endogenous formation of carcinogenic N-nitroso compound.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are formed when organic substances like meat are burnt incompletely, may also have carcinogenic potential. Grilling (broiling) and barbecuing (charbroiling) meat, fish, or other foods with intense heat over a direct flame results in fat dropping on the hot fire, causing flames; these flames contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that stick to the surface of food.

Overall it is likely that a combination of mechanisms contribute to higher risk ofcolorectal canceramong people consuming high quantities of processed meat. Similar to red meat, processed meat is rich in fat, protein and haem iron which can promote tumorigenesis through the mechanisms described above.

Processed meatsare often cooked at high temperatures which can lead to increased exposure to heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Processed meat is invariably higher in fat content than red meat which may promote carcinogenesis through synthesis of secondary bile acids; however, human data supporting this hypothesis are weak.

Processed meat is also a source of exogenously derived N-nitroso compounds, which may have carcinogenic potential.

Observed inverse associations between intake of dairy products andcolorectal cancerdevelopment have been largely attributed to their high calcium content. In addition to calcium, lactic acid-producing bacteria may also protect against colorectal cancer,while the casein and lactose in milk may increase calcium bioavailability.

Other nutrients or bioactive constituents in dairy products, such as lactoferrin, vitamin D (from fortified dairy products) or the short-chain fatty acid butyrate may also impart some protective functions against colorectal cancer, but these require much better elucidation.

The CUP Panel concluded that the evidence was generally consistent for dairy products, milk, cheese and dietary calcium, and showed a decreased risk of colorectal cancer with higher consumption.

> Read more about the cancer process

Emerging research

We fund research on how diet affects cancer risk through our regular grant programme. Read about the latest findings and ongoing projects here.

Diet and Cancer Report 2018

In 2018, we produced the Diet and Cancer Report, the third in our series of major reports looking at the many ways in which our diets, and how active we are, affect our cancer risk. You can find out much more about meat, fish and dairy and the risk of cancer by downloading a pdf of the relevant chapter in the 2018 report. Please note, however, that this webpage may have been updated since the report was published.

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Meat, fish, dairy and cancer risk - WCRF International (2024)


Meat, fish, dairy and cancer risk - WCRF International? ›

We found a significant correlation between high consumption of Neu5Gc from red meat and cheeses and increased development of those antibodies that heighten the risk of cancer. For years there have been efforts to find such a connection, but no one did.

Is meat and dairy linked to cancer? ›

We found a significant correlation between high consumption of Neu5Gc from red meat and cheeses and increased development of those antibodies that heighten the risk of cancer. For years there have been efforts to find such a connection, but no one did.

Do vegans get cancer less than meat eaters? ›

Can becoming vegetarian or vegan help lower your cancer risk? While no diet choice will guarantee that you won't develop cancer, cutting meat can help you lower your cancer risk. The American Institute for Cancer Research promotes a plant-based diet. Two-thirds or more of your plate should be plant-based foods.

What are the group 1 carcinogenic foods? ›

The World Health Organization has classified processed meats including ham, bacon, salami and frankfurts as a Group 1 carcinogen (known to cause cancer) which means that there's strong evidence that processed meats cause cancer. Eating processed meat increases your risk of bowel and stomach cancer.

Are vegetarians less likely to get colon cancer? ›

According to the results from a 7-year study in 77,659 people, those who followed a vegetarian diet had a 22% lower risk of CRC compared with nonvegetarians. Similarly, results from another 20-year study in 10,210 people found a significant CRC risk reduction in vegetarians compared with meat consumers.

Is dairy OK if you have cancer? ›

Should I eat dairy foods? The current evidence that dairy products can protect against cancer or increase the risk of cancer is not conclusive. Cancer Council supports that the proven health benefits of dairy foods outweigh the unproven harms. Dairy foods should be eaten as part of a varied and nutritious diet.

Can you eat meat when you have cancer? ›

On good days, eat lots of protein and healthy calories. That will keep your body strong and help repair damage from your cancer or your treatment. High-protein foods include: Lean meat, chicken, and fish.

What is the number one cancer fighting food? ›

"Cancer-fighting foods"

The list is usually topped with berries, broccoli, tomatoes, walnuts, grapes and other vegetables, fruits and nuts. "If you look at the typical foods that reduce cancer risk, it's pretty much all plant foods that contain phytochemicals," says Wohlford.

Who will live longer vegans or meat-eaters? ›

Due to its potential disease prevention links, it is not surprising that vegans may live longer, as following a vegan diet is linked to reduced occurrence of chronic disease. However, more research is needed to definitively conclude that vegans live longer than non-vegans.”

What diet has the lowest cancer rate? ›

Plant-based diets are full of fruits, vegetables and legumes, with little or no meat or other animal products. In research studies, vegans, people who don't eat any animal products, including fish, dairy or eggs, appeared to have the lowest rates of cancer of any diet.

What are the worst carcinogens? ›

Well established occupational carcinogens include vinyl chloride and hemangiosarcoma of the liver, benzene and leukemia, aniline dyes and bladder cancer, asbestos and mesothelioma, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and scrotal cancer among chimney sweeps to name a few.

What foods are carcinogens to avoid? ›

5 foods and drinks linked to cancer
  • Red meats. Red meat such as beef, pork, venison and lamb has been linked to colorectal cancer, Tatum says. ...
  • Processed meats. Another category of meat that comes with a heightened cancer risk is processed meat. ...
  • Alcohol. ...
  • Ultra-processed food and drinks. ...
  • Food and drinks with added sugar.
Nov 2, 2023

What popular food is linked to colon cancer? ›

Red and processed meats.

Both red meat and processed meat contain compounds that increase the risk of colon cancer.

Are vegetarians less likely to get dementia? ›

Moreover, a study among 5,710 Taiwanese participants found that vegetarians were at a lower risk of dementia compared to omnivores [19].

Do vegans get cancer less? ›

While some studies have observed that those who follow a vegetarian diet have a lower risk of developing cancer as a whole, no individual study has been able to show with enough reliability that vegetarians have a lower risk of developing specific cancers (eg colorectal cancer, breast cancer or prostate cancer).

Is there a link between meat and cancer? ›


red meat INCREASES the risk of colorectal cancer. processed meat INCREASES the risk of colorectal cancer. Cantonese-style salted fish INCREASES the risk of nasopharyngeal cancer.

Is it healthy to eat meat and dairy together? ›

Drinking milk after eating meat or combining the two can trigger several issues like gas, bloating, discomfort, stomach ache, nausea, acid reflux, heartburn, ulcers to name a few.

Why can't you eat meat and dairy? ›

One of the kosher laws is not to mix meat and dairy because it says in the Torah 3 different times not to “cook a kid in its mothers milk” and we derive from that to not cook any meat with dairy, not eat it together, and even to use separate pots, utensils, plates, etc. for meat and dairy.

What is a class 2A carcinogen? ›

Group 2A: "Probably carcinogenic to humans" There is strong evidence that it can cause cancer in humans, but at present it is not conclusive. IARC definition and list of compounds.

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