Red and Processed Meats: The Cancer Connection

Research has found that limiting the amount of red meat and avoiding processed meat reduces the risk of certain types of cancer.

What are red and processed meats?

In general, red meat is dark in color when raw. Examples include:

  • Beef
  • Lamb
  • Pork

Processed meats are meats that have been preserved by smoking, salting, curing or adding other preservatives. Examples include:

  • Deli meats, such as sliced turkey and bologna
  • Bacon
  • Ham
  • Hot dogs

What’s the link to cancer?

Red Meat:

According to AICR, eating more than 18 ounces of red meat per week increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

Researchers do not yet know exactly how red meat affects the development of colorectal cancer. Red meat contains compounds that have been shown to damage the lining of the gut and possibly promote cancer. Cooking red meat at high temperatures can also produce other cancer-causing compounds.

Processed Meat:

Research shows that any amount of processed meat is linked to increased risk of colorectal cancer.

There are many possible ways that processed meat may affect colorectal cancer. For example, compounds used as preservatives may change into cancer-causing compounds in the body.

So what can I eat?

For red meat, try to stay under 18 ounces a week. As a general rule, 18 ounces of cooked red meat is roughly equivalent to 24 ounces of uncooked meat.

When cooked:

  • A small hamburger is about 3 to 4 ounces
  • A pork or lamb chop weighs in at about 4 ounces
  • A T-bone steak cooks down to about 10 ounces

You don’t have to eliminate red meat from your diet, but it makes sense to cut back. And feel free to divide your meaty meals throughout the week however you wish – if, for example, you start the week with a big 10-ounce steak, enjoy smaller portions the rest of the week, sprinkling in a few meat-free days.

See the Serving Size Finder.

For processed meat: Avoid all processed meats.

Meaty Substitutions

Meal Instead of… Try…
Breakfast Eggs and bacon Eggs and whole-wheat toast or oatmeal
Sausage links Soy-based links
Lunch Bologna or ham and sandwich Veggie wrap with hummus or fresh turkey on whole-grain bread
Hot dog Soup and salad with nuts
Dinner 8 ounce steak dinner 3 ounces of steak with extra vegetables or whole grains
Hamburgers Fresh turkey on whole-grain bread


cooked steak