Scientists say that they have identified one of the main links between a diet high in red meat and an increased risk of bowel cancer.
Researchers at the MRC Dunn Human Nutrition Unit and the Open University found that people who eat two or more portions of red meat every day have a significantly higher level of cellular DNA damage than people who ate one portion or less a week.
A study by the same team last year showed that the risks of bowel cancer could be increased by as much as a third among people with high-red meat diets.
Nearly 17,000 currently die from the disease every year in the UK.
“These combined discoveries have allowed us to link red meat consumption to an increased risk of bowel cancer and may give us some clues about developing a screening test for very early changes related to the disease,” said Professor David Shuker, who headed the Open University team.
The study suggested that the increased cancer risk could be caused by substances called N-nitrosocompounds, which form in the large bowel after eating red meat.
These are thought to combine with DNA and make cells more susceptible to changes or mutations which can increase their likelihood of becoming cancerous.
“This study strengthens the link between red meat and bowel cancer by showing that chemicals in red meat can damage DNA,” said Ed Yong, science information officer at Cancer Research UK.
“While it doesn’t mean that everyone should go vegetarian, it does emphasise that eating a healthy, balanced diet is very important for reducing your risk of cancer.
“Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign advises people to eat lots of fibre, fruit and vegetables, and cut down on red and processed meat.”