Diet and cancer risk: vegetarians are the winners

July 28, 2009 by  
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vegetables-freshThis is probably one of the largest studies to investigate the effect of diet and cancer risk. The study included more than 60,000 British residents and lasted for more than 12 years.

And the results indicate that a vegetarian diet lowers the risk for 20 different types of cancers.

According to researcher Dr. Naomi Allen

“This is strong evidence that vegetarians have lower rates of cancer than meat eaters.”

The study used the British data from an even larger study called the European Perspective Investment into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) which is tracking half a million Europeans.

The dietary characteristics of the participants are:

  • 32,403 meat eaters
  • 8,562 who ate fish but not meat
  • 20,601 vegetarians

During a 12.2-year follow up period, a large proportion of meat eaters developed cancer whereas the lowest incidence of cancer was among the vegetarians.

Statistically speaking, vegetarians were 12% less likely to develop cancer than those who ate meat. The fish eaters have also a lower likelihood – 18% less than meat eaters.

It has been known that red meat consumption is a risk factor for stomach cancer. What is surprising is the fact that the risk for lymph and blood cancers (e.g. leukaemia, lymphoma) is also much lower among vegetarians – in fact, much lower compared to other cancers. In the general population, the likelihood of developing any type of cancer is 33 in 100 people. For vegetarians, it’s 29 for every 100 people. When just looking at blood cancers, vegetarians had 50% lower risk that meat eaters. In one rare cancer of the bone marrow called multiple myeloma, the risk for vegetarians is even 75% less. Another cancer that is linked to the vegetarian diet is bladder cancer – 45% lower risk for vegetarians compared to meat eaters, However, risk for common cancers such as cancer of the prostate, breast and bowel isn’t seem to be dependent on diet and is basically the same for meat eaters and non-meat eaters.

The mechanisms behind the diet – cancer risk link is not very clear and health experts warn not to jump into conclusions and change diet immediately. However, it is comforting to know that it may be possible to modify our cancer risk by lifestyle change such as diet. We don’t have to change our diets and become all vegetarians doesn’t the study findings support the common but ignored knowledge of what a balanced diet is?

“A healthy, balanced diet [and] high in fibre, fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fat, salt and red and processed meat.”

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