Following a vegetarian diet could lower cancer risk by 14%

A new study concludes that vegetarians are less at risk from cancer than fish or meat eaters

  • New study analysed diet groups of over 450,000 people in the UK Biobank
  • Participants were categorised by level of meat and fish consumption
  • Bowel, breast, and prostate cancers identified as having specific links to different dietary patterns

World Cancer Research Fund, Cancer Research UK and Oxford Population Health today announce results from a new study in which low and non-meat-eaters had a lower risk of being diagnosed with cancer in comparison to regular meat-eaters.The study is published today in the open access journal BMC Medicine.

The researchers from Oxford Population Health analysed the diets of over 450,000 people and categorised them into diet groups depending on their meat intake. Regular meat-eaters were classified as those who consumed processed meat, red meat or poultry more than five times a week; and low meat-eaters less or equal to five times a week. The study also analysed people who didn’t eat meat but did eat fish (pescatarians), and the final group included vegetarians who never consume any meat or fish.

  • Overall, they found that compared with regular meat-eaters, the risk of developing any type of cancer was 2% lower in low meat-eaters, 10% lower in fish-eaters, and 14% lower in vegetarians.
  • Low meat-eaters had a 9% lower risk of developing bowel cancer in comparison to regular meat-eaters
  • Vegetarian women had a lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer (18%) in comparison to regular meat-eaters, which was found to be potentially due to the lower body mass index observed in vegetarian women.
  • Pescatarians and vegetarians had a lower risk of prostate cancer (20% and 31%, respectively) in comparison to regular meat-eaters.

The lower risk of bowel cancer in low meat-eaters is consistent with World Cancer Research Fund’s Third Expert Report2 and Oxford Population Health’s findings3 that there is strong evidence that consuming red or processed meat increases the risk of bowel cancer.

Cody Watling, from Oxford Population Health’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit and lead researcher, said:

Previous evidence has suggested that vegetarians and pescatarians may have a lower risk of developing cancer. However, the evidence for a lower risk of developing specific types of cancer has been inconclusive. Being overweight after menopause is known to increase the risk of breast cancer and so the reduced risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in vegetarian women, due to lower BMI, was unsurprising – but we were surprised by the substantially lower risk of prostate cancer in vegetarians. Our group in Oxford is doing further research, funded by World Cancer Research Fund, to assess the risk of cancer across diet groups with larger numbers of vegetarians and pescatarians, as well as looking at vegans separately, to further explore potential explanations for differences in risk of specific types of cancer.

Dr Giota Mitrou, Director of Research and Innovation, World Cancer Research Fund International, said:

One in two of us will get cancer in our lifetime. And while there are lots of things about cancer we cannot control, we know that currently 40% of cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes including diet, weight and physical activity. The results of this large, British study – part-funded by a grant from World Cancer Research Fund and released during Cancer Prevention Action Week – suggest that specific dietary behaviours such as low meat, vegetarian or pescatarian diets can have an impact on reducing the risk of certain cancers: in this case bowel, breast and prostate. The findings support our Cancer Prevention Recommendations to limit red and processed meat and increase intake of wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and pulses.

Cancer Prevention Action Week

Cancer Prevention Action Week takes place from 21–27 February 2022. This year the theme is #CupboardHeroes. World Cancer Research Fund’s research highlights that people don’t need to eat heavily marketed ‘superfoods’ to reduce their risk of cancer. The real super foods are the cheap, nutritious cupboard heroes you’ll find in many kitchens like lentils and tinned vegetables. During the week, World Cancer Research Fund is sharing a handy Cupboard Heroes recipe generator, alongside information that will make it easier for everyone to adopt simple, everyday habits that can help prevent cancer.

Dr Julie Sharp, head of health and patient information at Cancer Research UK, said:

Maintaining a healthy diet is a great way to lower your risk of cancer and eating less processed meat reduces your risk of bowel cancer, specifically. But more research is needed to understand the link between red and processed meat and other cancer types.

“Having some bacon or ham every now and then won’t do much harm. If you are having a lot of meat a lot of the time, then cutting down is a good idea, but a vegetarian diet doesn’t always mean someone is eating healthily. It’s more important to have a balanced diet with lots of fruit, vegetables and high fibre foods, like wholegrains and pulses, and low in processed and red meat and foods high in salt, sugar and fat.

Notes to Editors

The study can be accessed after the embargo at: https://bmcmedicine.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12916-022-02256-w

Contact details

Annabelle Lane: a.lane@wcrg.org; 07717131883

Spokespeople available for interview

  • Dr Giota Mitrou, Director of Research and Innovation, World Cancer Research Fund International
  • Cody Watling, Lead Researcher, Oxford Population Health’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit

References

  1. Watling, C., Schmidt, J., Dunneram, Y.et al. Risk of cancer in regular and low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, and vegetarians: a prospective analysis of UK Biobank participants. BMC Med 20, 73 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-022-02256-w.
  2. World Cancer Research Fund/ American Institute of Cancer Research. Diet, Nutrition, Physical activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective. Continuous Update Project Expert Report 2018. Available at: dietandcancerreport.org
  3. Bradbury, K.E., Murphy, N. and Key, T.J., 2020. Diet and colorectal cancer in UK Biobank: a prospective study. International journal of epidemiology, 49(1), pp.246-258. Available at: https://academic.oup.com/ije/article/49/1/246/5470096?login=true

About World Cancer Research Fund

World Cancer Research Fund is the UK’s only charity solely dedicated to cancer prevention and survival. Over the last 30 years, WCRF has worked tirelessly to understand the links between a person’s weight, diet and physical activity levels, and their cancer risk.

World Cancer Research Fund’s Cancer Health Check and Cancer Prevention Recommendations help people understand what changes they could make to reduce the risk of getting cancer. Based on the latest scientific research, the advice is practical and simple to understand.

About Oxford Population Health

Oxford Population Health (the Nuffield Department of Population Health) is a world-leading research institute, based at the University of Oxford that investigates the causes and prevention of disease. We have over 750 staff, students and academic visitors working in a number of world-renowned population health research groups, including the Cancer Epidemiology Unit (CEU), Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit (CTSU), and the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU), and other groups working on public health, health economics, ethics and health record linkage. Oxford Population Health is also a key partner in the Oxford University Big Data Institute. https://www.ndph.ox.ac.uk/

About Cancer Research UK

  • Cancer Research UK is the world’s leading cancer charity dedicated to saving lives through research.
  • Cancer Research UK’s pioneering work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped save millions of lives.
  • Cancer Research UK receives no funding from the UK government for its life-saving research. Every step it makes towards beating cancer relies on vital donations from the public.
  • Cancer Research UK has been at the heart of the progress that has already seen survival in the UK double in the last 40 years.
  • Today, 2 in 4 people survive their cancer for at least 10 years. Cancer Research UK’s ambition is to accelerate progress so that by 2034, 3 in 4 people will survive their cancer for at least 10 years.
  • Cancer Research UK supports research into all aspects of cancer through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses.
  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK’s vision is to bring forward the day when all cancers are cured.

For further information about Cancer Research UK’s work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 0300 123 1022 or visit www.cancerresearchuk.org. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook.