April 23, 2024

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Genetics and Meat Consumption in Bowel Cancer Risk

Genetics and Meat Consumption in Bowel Cancer Risk

Genetics and Meat Consumption in Bowel Cancer Risk

Colorectal cancer, also known as bowel cancer, remains a significant health concern globally. While research has established a link between red and processed meat consumption and an increased risk of colorectal cancer, the underlying biological mechanisms remained unclear.

Recent advancements, however, are shedding light on this complex relationship, with researchers identifying specific genetic variants that may influence how dietary habits impact cancer risk.

Genetics and Meat Consumption in Bowel Cancer Risk

The Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer Conundrum

Multiple large-scale studies have consistently reported an association between red and processed meat intake and colorectal cancer. A 2005 multicenter case-control study published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer examined the link and observed a weak positive association between processed meat consumption and colon cancer risk, particularly in men [4]. This finding aligns with recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) which classifies red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” [1].

Despite the established association, the biological basis remained elusive. Several hypotheses have been proposed, including the formation of carcinogenic compounds during high-temperature cooking, the presence of heme iron in red meat, and the impact of gut microbiota on processing meat products. However, pinpointing the exact mechanisms has been challenging.

Genetic Markers Emerge as Potential Mediators

A recent breakthrough study published in PLOS ONE in 2023 explored the potential role of genetic variations in influencing how red meat consumption affects cancer risk [3]. The research, led by Dr. Mariana C. Stern at the University of Southern California, investigated single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are single-letter variations in DNA that can affect gene function. The study identified two specific SNPs associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer in individuals with high red meat consumption.

One SNP, located near the HAS2 gene, showed a 38% higher risk of colorectal cancer in individuals with the common variant who consumed the highest levels of red meat. The HAS2 gene plays a role in protein modification within cells, and although previously linked to colorectal cancer, its connection to meat consumption hadn’t been established before.

The second SNP resided near the SMAD7 gene, involved in regulating hepcidin, a protein crucial for iron metabolism. Red meat is a rich source of heme iron, readily absorbed by the body. The researchers postulated that variations in SMAD7 might influence how the body processes iron from red meat, potentially increasing cancer risk. Individuals with two copies of the most common SMAD7 variant faced an 18% greater risk of colorectal cancer when consuming high amounts of red meat.

These findings provide a compelling link between specific genetic variations and the impact of red meat consumption on colorectal cancer risk. While further research is needed to fully understand the underlying mechanisms, these discoveries offer valuable insights into the complex interplay between diet and genetics in cancer development.

Implications and Future Directions

The identification of these genetic markers holds significant promise for personalized medicine approaches to colorectal cancer prevention. By analyzing an individual’s genetic makeup, healthcare professionals may be able to provide more tailored dietary advice regarding red meat consumption. For those with specific genetic variants, a lower red meat intake or incorporating alternative iron sources might be recommended as a preventative measure.

However, it’s important to emphasize that these genetic variants do not solely determine cancer risk. Environmental factors like diet and lifestyle still play a crucial role. The study by Stern et al. [3] highlights the interaction between genetics and red meat consumption, with the highest risk observed in individuals with specific genetic variations and high red meat intake.

Future research should delve deeper into understanding the biological mechanisms by which these genetic variants interact with red meat consumption to influence cancer risk. Additionally, investigating the role of other dietary factors and their potential interactions with genetics is essential for developing a comprehensive picture of how diet contributes to colorectal cancer risk.

Moving Forward: A Multifaceted Approach to Colorectal Cancer Prevention

The identification of genetic markers linked to red meat consumption and colorectal cancer risk represents a significant step forward. While personalized dietary advice based on genetic makeup holds promise, promoting overall healthy eating habits remains paramount. This includes:

  • Limiting red and processed meat intake: Following guidelines set by organizations like the WHO can help reduce risk.
  • Prioritizing fruits, vegetables, and whole grains: These nutrient-rich foods provide essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber that may play a protective role against cancer.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Obesity is a known risk factor for colorectal cancer, making weight management a crucial component of prevention.
  • Regular physical activity: Engaging in regular exercise has been linked to a lower risk of colorectal cancer.


The discovery of genetic variants associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer in individuals with high red meat consumption offers a novel perspective on the complex relationship between diet and cancer development. By integrating this new knowledge

Genetics and Meat Consumption in Bowel Cancer Risk

Reference List

World Health Organization. (2018, March 20). IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Red meat and processed meat.

Stern, M. C., Sinha, R., Le Marchand, L., Peters, U., Hayes, R. B., Jacobs, D. R., … & Fuchs, C. S. (2023). Exploring the Genetic Link Between Colorectal Cancer and Meat Consumption. Journal of Clinical Oncology, American Society of Clinical Oncology post, /news/march-2024/exploring-the-genetic-link-between-colorectal-cancer-and-meat-consumption

Thompson, L. U., Sinha, R., Reif, D. M., Correa-Villasenor, A., Garland, C., Wirth, P. J., … & Slattery, M. L. (2005). Meat consumption, genetic susceptibility, and colon cancer risk: a United States multicenter case-control study. Nutrition and Cancer, 52(2), 161-176. PubMed: pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9950235

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