Do vegetarians have a lower risk of certain cancers?

Scientists at the University of Oxford are exploring the complicated relationship between plant-rich diets and developing common cancers.

People enjoying a picnicVegetarianism has come a long way since veggie sausages were invented during the first world war as a way of rationing meat!

Plant-based, vegan, flexitarian and vegetarian diets are now increasingly popular, with around 3 million people in the UK who don’t eat meat.

The reasons for choosing to limit meat consumption, or cut meat entirely from your diet, are varied:

  • environmental concerns around the climate and biodiversity crises
  • animal welfare
  • concerns about health

Many studies have shown that people who eat a vegetarian diet have a lower overall risk of cancer. However, it’s also important to find out whether specific cancers have a stronger link with a vegetarian diet as this could help provide guidance for people more at risk of those cancers.

That’s why World Cancer Research Fund is funding an exciting study at the University of Oxford led by Associate Prof Aurora Pérez-Cornago to find out whether vegetarians have a lower risk of developing specific cancers, and whether the different nutrients in a vegetarian diet affect cancer risk.

Millions of data sets

This research is an epidemiological study, which means it looks at masses of data about populations – the researchers are looking at data from nearly 2 million people – to see what patterns emerge.

Awarded in 2019, this research grant is ongoing, yet already the scientists have made 3 important discoveries:

  • lower risk of bowel cancer in low meat‑eaters.
  • lower risk of post-menopausal breast cancer in vegetarian women, which may be explained by their lower body mass index.
  • insulin-like growth factors (a protein that can promote cell division and inhibit cell death, which can lead to tumour development) plays a role in the development of prostate cancer, including aggressive prostate cancer.
  • Bowel cancer risk varies by intake of carbohydrate types and sources – we know that a high-fibre diet can reduce the risk of bowel cancer. What Associate Prof Pérez-Cornago and her team have discovered is that the type of carbohydrate is also important.
  • Strong evidence that eating dairy is linked to a lower risk of bowel cancer and limited evidence that dairy is linked to prostate cancer risk.

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As part of an international network of charities, we’ve been funding life-saving research, influencing global health policy and informing the public since 1982.

While society continues to search for a cure, our prevention and survival work helps people to live longer, healthier lives – free from the devastating effects of cancer. Can you help us?

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