LONDON – Bringing home the bacon might not be such a great idea, according to stricter new dietary advice from the British government issued Friday.
In the first new guidelines since 1998, Britain advised people to help prevent cancer by cutting down on steaks, hamburgers, sausages and other red meat. Government experts say people should eat no more than 500 grams (1 pound) of red meat a week, or 70 grams (2.5 ounces) every day, significantly less than it previously recommended. That works out to about one small lamb chop a day.
Scientists think people who eat a lot of meat like lamb, roast beef and ham have a higher risk of bowel cancer. In 2005, a large European study found people who ate about 160 grams (5.6 ounces) of red meat a day bumped up their bowel cancer risk by one third compared to people who ate the least meat. On average, people have about a one in 19 chance of developing bowel cancer in their lifetime.
"This doesn't mean people have to become vegetarian, but if you're having a steak every day, that's probably not helping," said Ed Yong, head of health information and evidence at Cancer Research U.K. In Britain, more than 40 percent of men eat nearly as much meat as is contained in a quarter pound hamburger every day.
Yong said there was too little data to know what might be a safe level of red meat consumption, but recommended people consider trimming their carnivorous habits. "There are no guarantees," he said. "This is just about stacking the odds in your favor."
Dame Sally Davies, interim chief medical officer, said red meat was part of a healthy diet but advised people who eat a lot of it to cut down. In a statement, she said the guidelines provided advice about how to prevent bowel cancer.
High levels of meat consumption have also been linked to cancers of the breast, bladder, stomach and the pancreas.
Experts suspect that haem, the pigment which gives red meat its color, damages cells in the digestive system, which may lead to cancer. Cooking meat at high temperatures, like on a barbecue, may also produce cancer-causing chemicals.
Britain's new guidelines match advice issued by the World Cancer Research Fund several years ago. In 2007, the agency advised against eating too much processed meat like sausages or bacon and said children should never eat such products. It estimated that cutting down on red meat could save 3,800 Britons from dying of bowel cancer every year.
In 1998, UK government officials said people could safely eat as much as 90 grams (3 ounces) a day and that only people who consumed more than 140 grams (5 ounces) should worry.
Some experts said trimming too much red meat from your diet could inadvertently make people pile on the pounds.
"To cut down on meat without increasing protein from other sources will increase the obesity problem," said Arne Astrup, a nutrition professor at the University of Copenhagen. He said people should substitute red meat with more lean sources of protein like fish rather than with more fatty foods, which tend to be more filling.
Scandinavian countries recommend people eat a slice of red meat about the size of a small pork chop every day — more than the new British guidelines allow.
In the U.S., there is no specific advice about red meat, but federal guidelines say people can eat nearly double the amount of protein — including red and lean meats, fish and eggs — recommended by Britain.