Sperling Prostate Center

Don’t Let That Steak Tempt You

UPDATE: 11/11/2022
Originally published 1/14/2015

By way of updating the food chemistry science in the original 2015 blog below, we thought we’d highlight more recent information on red meat consumption and general cancer risk. Here are a few brief study conclusions from 2018-2020:

  • 2018 – The French NutriNet-Santé study (61,476 men and women) found that red meat intake was linked with increased overall cancer risk, particularly breast cancer, but did not find an association with prostate cancer (PCa) risk.[i]
  • 2020 – A literature review of a broad spectrum of lifestyle choices that benefit PCa patients includes dietary recommendations (e.g., low-saturated fat, plant-based, whole-food diets along with exercise, and stress reduction). Non-randomized controlled trials (i.e., observational and single arm trials) suggest a need for further exploration of avoidance of eggs, dairy, poultry with skin, processed red meat, and saturated fat.[ii]
  • 2021 – Red meat consumption was associated with increased risk of overall cancer mortality, non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), bladder, breast, colorectal, endometrial, esophageal, gastric, lung and nasopharyngeal cancer, but not PCa. However, processed meat may increase the risk of overall cancer mortality, and several other cancers including PCa.[iii]
  • 2021 – Results from the EPIC study (European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition) indicate that increased fruit consumption had a protective effect against PCa while less consumption of red and processed meat was linked with lower colorectal cancer risk.

Our takeaway message is that even if red meat is not associated with PCa, there’s definitely a connection with colorectal cancer (for both men and women), breast cancer in women, and several other cancers. We consistently promote the benefits of a plant-based diet, not just for prevention of PCa and better PCa treatment outcomes, but for overall health. We strongly suggest that you explore the benefits of the Mediterranean or DASH diet. If you’re a meat lover, consider a greater proportion of chicken and fish over red meat, as much as you’re able.


Eating red meat has gotten a poor reputation among cardiologist, and a few years ago, a report came out linking grilled red meat—especially well done—with the risk of developing prostate cancer. It was demonstrated that cooking meat over an open flame and charring it at high temperatures causes two chemicals, HCAs and PAHs, to form. These chemicals have been linked with prostate cancer development in animal studies.

New research has revealed that there’s something about beef itself, as well as pork, lamb and bison, that poses a cancer danger. It’s a non-human sugar molecule called Neu5Gc (N-glycolylneuraminic acid) that is found not only in these meats, but also in whole milk, some cheeses and fish eggs (not in fish itself). Humans evolved out of the ability to produce this molecule, but other mammals still need it to help the immune system distinguish between “self” and “alien” cells. Because of the way the molecule is formed, it is incorporated into human tissues. It is especially absorbed in cells that have a rapid growth rate such as fetuses, epithelial and endothelial tissue, and tumors. Once there, the immune system detects and registers it as a foreign invader. It attacks it, resulting in an inflammatory reaction.

The research team from University of California, San Diego was led by Dr. Arjit Varki, a professor of cellular and molecular medicine at UCSD. Dr. Varki hypothesizes that the molecule does not necessarily cause cancer, but may fuel its growth “like gasoline on the fire.”[iv] His team’s study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, sheds light on why there may be a connection between eating red meat and an increased risk of various cancers, including prostate cancer. Neu5Gc may not itself be a carcinogen (cancer-causing substance) but the chronic inflammation caused by the body’s efforts to get rid of it may play a role in accelerating a cancer’s development.

Dr. Varki’s team tested their theory on mice that were genetically engineered to be unable to produce Neu5Gc, just as humans are unable to do. When fed a diet high in Neu5Gc, their cancer rate was five times greater than that of control animals. One possible solution would be for cattle producers to breed selectively for cattle whose cells do not contain the molecule, assuming that Neu5Gc is indeed the culprit. It is noteworthy that consuming chicken and fish is not associated with heightened cancer risk, and these animals have very little or no Neu5Gc. The idea that grilling and charring red meat is carcinogenic is not borne out by grilling and charring either chicken or fish, which causes the meat to produce the same chemicals as grilling beef—but without a carcinogenic effect.

Dr. Varki recognizes that red meat contains important nutrients, such as iron. He does not recommend that people stop eating red meat (though he himself does not) but he does encourage people over age 40 to consider cutting down.

So the next time you’re in the meat section of your local grocery, think about walking away from beef, lamb, pork and bison and picking up some chicken or fish instead. It could be in your prostate’s best interest.

NOTE: This content is solely for purposes of information and does not substitute for diagnostic or medical advice. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing pelvic pain, or have any other health concerns or questions of a personal medical nature.

[i]i Diallo A, Deschasaux M, Latino-Martel P, Hercberg S et al. Red and processed meat intake and cancer risk: Results from the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort study. Int J Cancer. 2018 Jan 15;142(2):230-237.
[ii] Zuniga KB, Chan JM, Ryan CJ, Kenfield SA. Diet and lifestyle considerations for patients with prostate cancer. Urol Oncol. 2020 Mar;38(3):105-117.
[iii] Huang Y, Cao D, Chen Z, Chen B et al. Red and processed meat consumption and cancer outcomes: Umbrella review. Food Chem. 2021 Sep 15;356:129697.
[iv] http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/dec/29/red-meat-cancer-varki-neu5Gc-sialic/ Ubago-Guisado E, Rodríguez-Barranco M, Ching-López A, Petrova D et al. Evidence Update on the Relationship between Diet and the Most Common Cancers from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) Study: A Systematic Review. Nutrients. 2021 Oct 13;13(10):3582.


About Dr. Dan Sperling

Dan Sperling, MD, DABR, is a board certified radiologist who is globally recognized as a leader in multiparametric MRI for the detection and diagnosis of a range of disease conditions. As Medical Director of the Sperling Prostate Center, Sperling Medical Group and Sperling Neurosurgery Associates, he and his team are on the leading edge of significant change in medical practice. He is the co-author of the new patient book Redefining Prostate Cancer, and is a contributing author on over 25 published studies. For more information, contact the Sperling Prostate Center.

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