Meat, fish, dairy and cancer risk

A graphical image of a chicken and a fishWe analyse global research on how consuming meat, fish and dairy products affects the risk of developing cancer.


There is strong evidence that consuming:

How does eating meat, fish and dairy affect your risk of cancer?

For red meat, processed meat and Cantonese-style salted fish the evidence shows that, in general, the more people consume, the higher the risk of some cancers. In contrast, the evidence shows that, in general, the more dairy products people consume, the lower the risk of colorectal cancer.

For people who eat meat, eat no more than moderate amounts of red meat, such as beef, pork and lamb, and eat little, if any, processed meat
– This is the opinion of our Expert Panel

Cancer Prevention Recommendation

> Limit consumption of red and processed meat

A global recommendation about consumption of Cantonese-style salted fish has not been made, as this type of fish is consumed only in specific parts of the world. Nevertheless, the Panel advises that Cantonese-style salted fish should not be consumed.

The Panel did not base a recommendation on the strong evidence that the consumption of dairy products decreases the risk of colorectal cancer as there is some other evidence that is suggestive of an increased risk of prostate cancer, although that evidence fell below the general threshold required for making a recommendation.

What are foods from animal sources?

Animal foods is a term used to describe all foods of animal origin. These foods may be derived from the animal flesh itself (for example, meat, fish and  poultry), or foods that are produced by animals (for example, eggs, as well as dairy products such as milk, and products made from milk including  cheese, butter, ghee and yoghurt).

Animal foods are generally a good source of protein, but the fat content varies according to the specific species from which they are derived. Dairy products are a good source of calcium. Consumption of foods such as red meat and fish generally increases with economic development, whereas consumption of dairy products is variable, particularly in Asia where many populations are lactose intolerant.

Animal foods such as meat and fish may be processed before consumption by smoking, curing, salting or by adding preservatives. Meat and fish are also often cooked using very high temperatures during frying, grilling (broiling) or barbecuing (charbroiling). These methods of processing and preparation may affect the chemical composition as well as the nutritional value of animal foods.

Mechanisms: the biology linking meat, fish and dairy with cancer

This section covers the primary hypotheses and is not based on a systematic or exhaustive search of the literature.

> Read more about the cancer process

Emerging research

We fund research on how diet affects cancer risk through our regular grant programme. Read about the latest findings and ongoing projects here.

Diet and Cancer Report 2018

In 2018, we produced the Diet and Cancer Report, the third in our series of major reports looking at the many ways in which our diets, and how active we are, affect our cancer risk. You can find out much more about meat, fish and dairy and the risk of cancer by downloading a pdf of the relevant chapter in the 2018 report. Please note, however, that this webpage may have been updated since the report was published.