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Vegetarians have 14% lower risk of cancer than regular meat-eaters

Vegetarians have a 14% lower chance of developing cancer than carnivores, according to a large study that links meat-eating to a heightened risk of the disease.

A team of researchers from Oxford University analysed data on more than 470,000 Britons and found that pescatarians had a 10% reduced risk. Compared with people who eat meat regularly – defined as more than five times a week – those who consumed small amounts had a 2% lower risk of developing cancer, the study found.

“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 analysis found.

However, the authors, led by Cody Watling from Oxford’s population health cancer epidemiology unit, made clear that their findings did not conclusively prove regular meat-eating increased the risk of cancer. Smoking and body fat could also help explain the differences found, they said.

Their study of participants in the UK Biobank study also found that:

  • Low meat-eaters – who consume meat five or fewer times a week – had a 9% lower risk of developing bowel cancer than regular meat-eaters.
  • Vegetarian women were 18% less likely than those who ate meat regularly to develop postmenopausal breast cancer, though that may be due to their lower body mass index.
  • Vegetarian men have a 31% lower risk of prostate cancer while among male pescatarians it is 20% lower.

“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,” said Dr Giota Mitrou, director of research and innovation at World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF), which co-funded the study with Cancer Research UK.

The results confirm WCRF’s longstanding advice that people should limit their intake of red and processed meat and eat more whole grains, vegetables, fruit and pulses, she added.

Read more about the study here.