How much meat is safe to eat?

Has new research left you concerned about the health implications of eating red and processed meat? Read on to find out what the latest findings mean and whether you need to banish the bacon sarnie for good...

How much meat is safe to eat?

The latest research from the World Health Organisation (WHO) states that processed meats can increase your risk of cancer and red meat probably poses a risk too. So is meat yet another food to avoid? The short answer to this is no, it doesn't have to be, it’s all about quality and quantity...

The health benefits of meat

Meat is an excellent source of protein and provides many important vitamins and minerals, which our body needs to grow and work. Red meat, such as lamb, beef, pork and venison, is a rich source of iron and is important in preventing the condition anaemia. Eating red meat once or twice a week can fit into a healthy diet, especially for toddlers and women of reproductive age. Lean meats, such as chicken and turkey, are lean options and can play a role in maintaining a healthy weight. In addition, the high protein content may help control appetite and keep you ‘fuller for longer’.  

What is processed meat?

However, processed meat is a different story. This refers to any meat that is preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives. Bacon, sausages, salami, ham and pâtés are all examples of processed meats. These foods are often high in both saturated fat and salt and provide very little in the way of vitamins and minerals.

A selection of chorizo on a board

How much is safe to eat?

Recent research found that people eating around 76g of red and processed meat a day had an increased risk of developing bowel cancer compared to those who ate about 21g a day.

The NHS recommends that those who regularly eat more than 90g of red or processed meat each day should reduce this in light of the possible associations with colon cancer risk. It's also best to reduce your intake of processed meats where possible.

To put these portion sizes into context:

Two thin slices of roast beef = 60g

One pork sausage = 50g

One portion Bolognese sauce = 60g

One lamb chop = 70g

One slice ham = 25g

5oz minute steak = 80g   

If you’re eating more than this, cutting down isn’t as hard as you may think. Making small swaps to your diet can help without making radical changes. Aim to have red meat just once or twice a week and swap processed meats for lentils, chickpeas, kidney beans, peas, butter beans, baked beans or haricot beans. These are less expensive, high in fibre and lower in fat. Swap lamb or beef mince for turkey or vegetarian mince in spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne and chilli con carne. Introduce more white fish such as cod, coley and haddock. Aim to have oily fish such as mackerel, herring, sardines and salmon once a week. These are great sources of healthy omega-3 oils. 

So can I still eat a bacon sandwich?

If you eat a bacon sandwich once a month, then there's no need to worry. A healthy, balanced diet can include protein from meat, as well as from non-animal sources such as beans and pulses. Moderation is the key.

10 ways to cut down on meat

Tamarind aubergine with black rice

1. Build meals around vegetables and add a little meat in, rather than the other way around. For example, reduce the amount of meat in stews and curries, and bulk up with extra vegetables, pulses and grains.

2. Use vegetables with a ‘meaty’ quality, such as mushrooms and aubergines.

3. After soaking dried mushrooms (such as porcini and shiitake) in hot water, save the soaking liquid to use in stocks to add a ‘meaty’ flavour.

4. Devise a way of curbing your meat intake that works for you. For example, consider eating meat only on weekends, or restricting meat to one meal per day.

5. Buy meat less frequently but make it the best quality you can afford.

6. Opt for Indian, Middle Eastern or South-East Asian veg dishes that use loads of spices and herbs – you're less likely to notice the absence of meat.

7. Add cheese! Simple roasted vegetables taste amazing sprinkled with a strong cheese, such as mature cheddar, towards the end of the cooking time.

8. In sandwiches, swap salami, ham or other processed meats with canned tuna, sardines or mackerel, or use roast chicken.

9. If you love bacon, fry one rasher until crisp, chop into pieces and add to a salad, omelette or pasta dish.

10. Have one sausage and one bacon rasher, instead of two of each, in your full English breakfast – add another egg and extra beans if you're hungry.

Read more

What does 70g of red or processed meat look like?
What is a plant-based diet?
Is bacon bad for you?
What is a flexitarian diet?

This article was last reviewed on 9th October 2019.

Emer Delaney BSc (Hons), RD has an honours degree in Human Nutrition and Dietetics from the University of Ulster. She has worked as a dietitian in some of London's top teaching hospitals and is currently based in Chelsea.

All health content on is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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Andrew Marek's picture
Andrew Marek
6th May, 2019
I am a colon cancer survivor. I had cancer when i was 26 yrs old in 1980. This information in this article was presented in a good way. However this is nothing new. It has been around since 1980 and before. Basically, Its about having too much of red meat. You need veggies too. The one thing not covered enough in the article is the danger of "processed" meats. They are everywhere. Bacon is one of the worst there is because of the high salt content. The salt will eventually ruin your heart. Yes I had Congestive Heart Failure last year at 64. Cant have any salt anymore. It retains the liquid associated with the heart and affects the hearts efficiency. The meat itself is good. Nothing wrong with it. Its how we gorge ourselves on it that makes it bad because the processing and additives added make it palatable. You ever try to eat meat or bacon w/o seasoning or smoking? Its doesn't taste that good. Its about making the right choices when you are young for longevity of life.
Pkay's picture
29th Oct, 2015
It does contain advice to eat pulses if you read it ! You can get cancer as a vegetarian so it may only change the odds slightly if you rule out meat.
28th Oct, 2015
I think this article on meat is very poor. It should contain much more information on alternative sources of protein such as beans, pulses, grains and seeds. We don't need to eat any meat at all to have a healthy balanced diet. Why take the risk of getting cancer?
9th Nov, 2015
quite agree, it seems to be trying to talk down the risks, and still recommending some meat, rather than providing more information about healthier plant-based alternatives. Would you say 'aim to smoke a cigarette just once or twice a week' ?
2nd Oct, 2018
Okay smoking cigarettes and eating food packed with essential vitamins and minerals are two completely different things. I know you and thesmithsuk are denial about the health benefits of meat but that does not make this article about meat poor. The article is titles "How much meat is safe to eat" and the writer answers this question with a very detailed and well thought out article. I am so so sorry the writer didn't say "There is no amount of meat that is safe to eat and everyone that eats meat is a horrible person blah blah animals are tortured blah blah stop being cruel blah blah blah". That's like saying no one should wear cotton because slaves picked it at one point in time. Really? All meat is bad because a few companies are cruel to the animals they kill? You two need to grow up.
29th Oct, 2015
I iam getting fed up with all this news.To me it is a without facts. So how many sausages per weeke, or how much broccoli can I eat to get the negative and the positive from both. Slowly I think it is a sell. Angst makes for a good selling point.Sorry also this magazine.A magazine that also gives a load of pages about cakes , puddings and 5 a day.
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