A rare steak carved into strips on a chopping board made of dark-coloured wood. In the bottom right corner of the board is a sprinkling of salt. Above the meat is a sprig of rosemary.

From grill to gut: the science behind red meat and bowel cancer

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is cancer found anywhere in the large bowel, which includes the colon and rectum.  It’s the third most common cancer worldwide, accounting for approximately 10% of all cancer cases.

Bowel cancer can arise for various reasons; however, one factor that increases risk is a diet high in red and processed meat. Here we delve into the impact of red and processed meat on bowel cancer, explore risk-reducing and preventative measures, and discuss how employers can support their employees’ journey towards better health. 

The impact of bowel cancer

Bowel cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths globally. In the UK, more than 40,000 new bowel cancer cases were diagnosed in 2020, with the disease sadly claiming more than 17,000 lives. 

Over the past 5 years, cancer has been the top reason for claims across Unum’s Critical Illness, Group Life and Group Income Protection (GIP) policies.  In 2022, cancer accounted for more than two-thirds of Group Critical Illness (GCI) claims — 12% of these were for bowel cancer.

The risks of red and processed meats

Red meat — such as beef, lamb, and pork — is a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals and can form part of a balanced diet. However, if you choose to eat red meat, limiting your weekly intake is important to managing your bowel cancer risk.

Processed meat — such as bacon, ham, sliced lunch meats and pâtés — is meat that has been preserved to make it last longer. Processed meat is a proven cause of cancer, with research suggesting that processes like smoking, curing or salting of meat tend to add chemicals such as nitrates. These can damage the cells lining our bowels, increasing the risk of bowel cancer. 

The Department of Health and Social Care recommends eating no more than 70g (cooked weight) of red or processed meat a day. However, new research finds that even people eating within these guidelines have a 20% higher chance of developing bowel cancer than those who only eat 21g a day.

Plant-based diets

A plant-based diet offers a multitude of health benefits. Cutting down on meat means there’s more room on your plate for high-fibre foods such as vegetables, wholegrains, nuts and pulses — all of which can help reduce the risk of cancer. 

Fruit and vegetables contain antioxidants which help delay or prevent cell damage. The World Health Organization recommends at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. One way to achieve this is aiming to have fruit and vegetables with every meal — these can be fresh, frozen or tinned. Wholegrain foods include brown rice, wholewheat pasta, oats and wholegrain bread — any food made from the entire grain. Research shows that fibre from wholegrains reduces bowel cancer risk.

Healthy swaps

We should all consider healthy swaps to our daily diets. Some easy swaps to consider include: 

  • Switching everyday foods such as bread, pasta, or rice to their wholegrain or brown alternative. 
  • Starting your day with a high-fibre breakfast — bran cereals and porridge are great options.
  • Eating the skin on vegetables such potatoes and carrots, which helps get the most fibre from your food.
  • Adding wholegrain or high-fibre snacks such as plain popcorn, fruit, nuts or seeds.
  • Hydration — we need to drink about 1.6–2 litres of fluid daily to prevent dehydration, with water and low-fat milk being good choices.

Yet making these changes can seem overwhelming, with old habits tough to break. 

That’s why we offer our Group Income Protection (GIP) customers access to six 1-2-1 sessions with a nutritional consultant annually via our award-winning health and wellbeing app Help@hand.1 These specialists help users understand nutritional information, their nutritional habits and can develop personalised plans to promote positive choices in improving diet as part of a healthy and balanced lifestyle. 

From the launch of nutritionist consultations in April 2023 to August that year, app users have booked almost 1,500 consultations. 

Employer support

Macmillan estimates approximately 890,000 working age people currently live with cancer. Cancer is becoming more prevalent in the workplace and will likely affect your workforce.

Take the case of Jeremy, a man in his thirties with a young family who received a shock bowel cancer diagnosis out of the blue. Fortunately, he had Group Critical Illness Insurance from Unum via his employer, which paid a cash lump sum on his diagnosis to offer complete peace of mind.

Read Jeremy's story

Research shows that empowered people achieve better health outcomes. When formulating support packages, employers should consider regular, high-quality health and wellbeing education to increase their workforce’s understanding of cancer risks, early signs, and prevention. This includes training for line managers in how to best support employees should they receive a cancer diagnosis.

Cancer affects people in different ways. Symptoms, treatments, prognoses and how we react and cope are unique to each individual. Employers will need to support staff at various stages of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. The best workplace cancer initiatives will have several touchpoints that reflect this.

Reframe Cancer

At Unum, we partner with experts Reframe Cancer. They provide our Cancer Support Service1 to employees covered by Unum’s Critical Illness Insurance who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, offering support for 2 years from first contact with Reframe. These employees get a Cancer Support Manager who provides expert help with day-to-day concerns. 

Reframe also supplies Cancer Assist1 to our Group Life Insurance customers, offering in-the-moment support and guidance to employees diagnosed with cancer. We’ve recently integrated both Reframe-provided cancer support services into Help@hand, giving employees seamless access to support all in one place.

Julian, an employee who accessed Reframe services, found the reality of dealing with cancer was surprisingly difficult. He therefore appreciated having Reframe in his corner, commenting: “All the complications, the operations and everything else like medication — it drains you. The pain, business, work, it all drains you. Everything drains you... If you’ve got assistance from an organisation like Reframe, it’s priceless.”


Around half of all bowel cancers could be prevented with healthier lifestyles. The good news is we know the changes we can make to reduce the risk of developing the disease, including avoiding processed meats, limiting red meat consumption and increasing wholegrains and fibre.

Bowel cancer can be a tricky subject. Symptoms include blood in your poo, a change in bowel habits or tummy pain, so people can shy away from talking about it due to embarrassment. The NHS offers a more comprehensive list of symptoms here.

Early detection and diagnosis of cancer gives those with the disease the best chance of successful outcomes. Before her death from bowel cancer, charity campaigner Dame Deborah James, aka Bowel Babe, challenged the taboo and stigma around bowel cancer by normalising the conversation. She wanted to stop people feeling embarrassed about reporting potential bowel cancer symptoms, urging us all to “check your poo — it could just save your life.”

1 Access to the service is facilitated by Unum at no additional cost to the Unum customer. Unum is not the provider of the service but can withdraw or change the service at any time. The service is entirely separate from any insurance policy provided by Unum. Service available to UK residents only.

Help@hand is provided by Square Health Limited, registered in England and Wales Number 07054181. Crown House, William Street, Windsor SL4 1AT

Cancer Support Service and Cancer Assist provided by Reframe. Reframe is the trading style of Harley Street Concierge Ltd. Registered address: The Square, Basing View, Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 4EB.