The way research on this is trending, the answer might be: less than we think, says Niki Bezzant
Earlier this year a huge report was published in The Lancet which received a lot of press (and a lot of derision from meat lovers). The EAT-Lancet report was the first attempt at coming up with a diet or way of eating for the best human health, alongside planetary health. The health of the people and the health of our environment are inextricably linked, after all, so it makes sense to try to eat to save both.
Unfortunately for meat-loving nations such as ours, if we seriously want to do that, we're probably going to have to change the way we eat in fundamental ways. Not least of which is eating far, far less meat. The EAT-Lancet "planetary health diet" recommended just 16 grams of red meat a day, or basically one small serve a week.
That's a lot less than we're eating now. OECD data for 2017 has us eating six times that: around 35 kilos of red meat (that's beef, lamb and pork) a year, per person. We have been eating less – of beef and lamb at least - during the past 10 years. But it may not be enough.
Adding to this is a new study led by researchers at the University of Auckland which found that even so-called "moderate" amounts of red and processed meat were enough to increase our risk of bowel cancer. We have one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world here: every day, three people die from the disease.
The latest study found people eating around 76g of red and processed meat a day (close to the recommended upper limit) had a 20 per cent higher chance of developing bowel cancer than those who only ate about 21g a day (close to the EAT-Lancet amount).
It's enough to strike fear into the heart of a farmer. Or a steak-lover. So what should we do? Give up meat? Isn't a bit of meat meant to be good for us?
The answer seems to lie in that same old refrain: everything in moderation. We know that we don't have to have red meat to be healthy. But it is good food. It supplies high-quality protein and it's a really useful way to get iron, which for some people – young women in particular – can be a real issue. It's also a good source of zinc and vitamin B12.
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If you're a young woman and you're having a little meat once or twice a week, giving that up might cause more harm than good.
On the other hand, if you are a typical Kiwi meat-loving bloke who feels like it's not a steak if it's not covering half the plate, it could be time to rein it in. Apart from anything else, if you're eating that much meat it probably means you're not eating enough of the other good stuff: plant foods. Switch that plate around to be half colourful veges and just a quarter meat, and you'll be doing your whole body and your future health a favour.
Even more importantly – and this is where I'm going to make myself really unpopular – we probably all need to cut our intake of processed meat – that's bacon, ham and smoked and cured meats such as salami. It's the processed meat that has long been identified as a serious elevator of bowel cancer risk; the World Cancer Research fund says we should eat "little, if any" of it. The most recent study found bowel cancer risk rose 19 per cent with every 25g of processed meat eaten in a day – that's about one rasher of bacon or slice of ham.
It's important to put this into context, as always. Red and processed meat is just one part of the cancer-risk picture. There are lots of ways we can make a difference with what we eat and how we live to improve our chances, and just looking at one without the others is a bit of false health economy.
Giving up the meat if you're still drinking alcohol more than extremely moderately; smoking; or living a sedentary life – which applies to many of us – is unlikely to do much to lower your cancer risk. But paying attention to all of these things together could see you fighting fit and beating the odds.