Kiwis' love of meat and booze behind bowel cancer - study

New Zealand has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world, as well as one of the highest rates of obesity.

These two facts are inextricably linked, new research published Friday in the New Zealand Medical Journal suggests.

Obesity narrowly edged out alcohol consumption as the biggest risk factor for developing bowel cancer. They were followed by physical inactivity, smoking, red meat and processed meat.

"If obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking and consumption of red and processed meats could be reduced, and physical activity could be increased among New Zealanders, it would reduce the risk of colorectal cancer considerably," researchers from the universities of Canterbury and Otago concluded.

Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, kills around 1100 New Zealanders every year.

Rates differ wildly from country to country, but Kiwis' love of red meat, drinking and our high obesity rates make us prone to developing the deadly disease.

We're ranked ninth in the world, according to the World Cancer Research Fund; behind Australia, South Korea and a number of European countries, including Norway and Slovakia.

The amount of booze and red meat we consume was found to be correlated with the risk of developing bowel cancer.

  • Almost a third of Kiwi adults are classified as obese.
  • One in six adults has a "hazardous drinking pattern".
  • One in six also smoke regularly.
  • One in seven are sedentary, undertaking less than half-an-hour of physical activity a week.
  • Almost 95 percent eat red meat at least once a month, and one in seven eat it at least five times a week.
  • More than 87 percent eat processed meat at least a once a month, with 8.6 percent eating it five or more times a week.

"These findings have considerable public health relevance since they suggest it is possible to prevent an appreciable proportion of colorectal cancer by changing a few selected lifestyle factors," the study notes.

"In addition to reducing the incidence of colorectal cancer, a reduction in obesity, alcohol consumption and smoking, and an increase in physical activity, would also reduce the incidence of other cancers, cardiovascular disease and diabetes in New Zealand."

Just halving what they call "modifiable risk factors" would result in, each year:

  • 141 fewer cases of colorectal cancer due to obesity
  • 102 fewer due to alcohol
  • 69 fewer due to physical inactivity
  • 39 fewer due to smoking
  • 75 fewer due to consumption of red meat
  • 39 fewer due to consumption of processed meat.