Vegetarians 14% Less Likely To Develop Cancer, New Study Claims

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New research from Oxford University suggests that those following a meat-free diet are 14 percent less at risk of cancer than their omnivorous counterparts. Pescatarians were discovered to be 10 percent less prone than meat-eaters. Findings have been released after a large-scale study that involved data analysis on more than 470,000 British individuals. 

Meat reduction, in place or eradication, was shown to garner favourable results as well. Compared to those with meat-heavy diets, defined as eating it five or more times per week, those consuming small quantities had a 2 percent lower risk of developing cancer. The authors of the research, led by Cody Watling, noted that the research was not conclusive evidence that meat causes cancer, as other lifestyle factors need to be taken into account. 

Photo by Thirdman from Pexels.

Data for healthier  living

Analysing health and lifestyle data across 470,000 people, the Oxford University study demonstrated a correlation between regular meat-eating and negative health consequences. “In this large British cohort, being a low meat-eater, fish-eater or vegetarian was associated with a lower risk of all cancer sites when compared to regular meat-eaters,” the report, published in the journal BMC Medicine, revealed. Smoking and body fat levels were highlighted as potentially impactful lifestyle choices alongside.

Gender-specific findings proved insightful. Vegetarian women were found to be 18% less likely to develop postmenopausal breast cancer than those regularly eating meat. This was generally attributed to the likelihood of a lower body mass index. Vegetarian men enjoy a 31 percent lower risk of prostate cancer than meat-eaters. This figure falls to 20 percent for pescatarian males. 

Overall, there is optimism that vegetarian and pescatarian diets are a potential weapon in the fight against increasing cancer rates. “The results … suggest that specific dietary behaviours such as low meat [and] vegetarian or pescatarian diets can have an impact on reducing the risk of certain cancers; in this case bowel, breast and prostate,” Dr Giota Mitrou, director of research and innovation at World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF), said in a statement. The organisation co-funded the study with Cancer Research UK.

Translating the findings

The new findings support what the WCRF has promoted for years; that a reduction in meat and uptake in fresh produce and whole grains are better for health. The Oxford data reveals a lower risk of all cancers for those with lower meat intake, but caution is still warned regarding other lifestyle factors. “It is not clear whether the other differences observed for all cancers and for prostate cancer reflect any causal relationship or are due to other factors,” the report says. 

The study is seen as yet more support for a meat-free or meat-reduced lifestyle, in a battle for better personal health. “This study adds to a growing body of research reinforcing the positive, protective effects of a vegetarian diet,” Richard McIlwain, chief executive of the Vegetarian Society, told The Guardian. “With cancer now affecting one in every two of us across the country, adopting a healthy vegetarian diet can clearly play a role in preventing this disease. Indeed, evidence from previous surveys suggests a balanced vegetarian diet can also reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, in addition to cancers.”

The Oxford research team are conducting more research into the correlation between vegetarian and pescatarian diets and reduced cancer risk. Vegans will be included alongside. 

Scientific support on the rise

A number of reports have been released recently, all citing the same thing; reduced meat intake is better for health. Most recently, the European Parliament has asked the EU to start promoting meat-free diets as a preventative action against cancer risk. It is part of a multipronged approach to reduce cancer rates in Europe, as the disease is the second biggest killer in the region. 

In January, a new EU report explicitly revealed that red meat consumption increases the risk of developing cancer. The EU Commission has set aside €170 million to promote greener food systems and whole-food, unprocessed diets.

Back in July last year, a link between colorectal cancer and red meat intake was determined. Findings were attributed to DNA damage being caused by ‘alkylation’, a downside of consuming a large amount of processed and unprocessed red meat.


Lead photo by Farhad Ibrahimzade on Unsplash.

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