Does everything cause cancer now?

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published September 24, 2019

Key Takeaways

In a surprising development, researchers have just found that eating poultry—including chicken—may be associated with increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, malignant melanoma, and prostate cancer. They published their results in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

This is bad news because in 2018, Americans ate, on average per person, 93.8 lbs of chicken and 110.0 lbs of total poultry, according to the National Chicken Council.

Although red meat has been implicated in increasing risks for certain cancers, this may be the first time that chicken—considered a healthier, “white” meat—has become embroiled in the search for associations between diet and cancer risk.

“The latest meta-analysis from the World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research concluded that red meat was a probable cause and processed meat a convincing cause of colorectal cancer. However, evidence for associations between red and processed meat intake and other cancer sites is limited. Furthermore, few studies have examined the association between poultry intake and cancer risk. Therefore, the aim of this study was to examine the associations between red, processed meat and poultry intake and incidence for 20 common cancer sites,” wrote researchers, led by Anika Knüppel, PhD, nutritional epidemiologist, Cancer Epidemiology Unit, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.

For this study—presented at the Society for Social Medicine and Population Health and International Epidemiology Association European Congress Annual Scientific Meeting 2019, held in Cork, Ireland, in early September—Dr. Knüppel and colleagues followed 475,488 middle-aged, cancer-free Britons (age range: 37-73 years; 54% women) from the UK Biobank. Diets, diseases, and illnesses were all analyzed, and participants completed a questionnaire at baseline about the frequency and types of meat they ate.

After a mean of 5.7 years of follow-up, any type of malignant cancer was diagnosed in 23,117 participants. Dr. Knüppel and fellow researchers found the following results:

  • Positive associations between red meat intake and colorectal cancer (HR per 50 g/d increment in intake: 1.20; 95% CI: 1.02-1.41), as well as breast cancer (HR: 1.13; 95% CI: 1.01-1.27), and prostate cancer (HR: 1.14: 95% CI: 1.00-1.29)
  • A positive association between the intake of processed meats and the risk for colorectal cancer (HR per 20 g/d increment in intake: 1.16; 95% CI: 1.04-1.30)
  • Positive associations between poultry intake and the risk for malignant melanoma (HR per 30 g/d increment in intake: 1.20; 95% CI: 1.00-1.44), prostate cancer (HR: 1.11; 95% CI: 1.02-1.22), and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (HR: 1.26; 95% CI: 1.03-1.55)

They cautioned, however, that further study, especially of the associations between poultry intake and prostate cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, is needed.

Yet, in the Sister Study, which was recently published in the International Journal of Cancer, researchers from the NIH followed 42,012 women and found that—after a mean follow-up of 7.6 years—those who consumed large quantities of red meat increased their risk of developing invasive breast cancer by 23%, while those who consumed large quantities of poultry, including chicken, actually lowered their risk by 15%.

The associations between eating red and processed meats and cancer—especially colorectal cancer—have been fairly well-documented, but could these results mean that eating chicken also increases your risks for certain types of cancer? It seems that while we were blissfully unaware that the jury on chicken and cancer risks had even been convened, it was…and is…still out.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter