According to a new study published in the open-access journal ‘BMC Medicine’, switching to a no-meat or low-meat diet can reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer.
A group of researchers from Oxford University studied if eating less meat could lower a person’s risk of cancer, as plant-based diets have shown lots of health benefits, such as lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
The researchers analyzed data collected from 472,377 British adults who were recruited to the UK Biobank between 2006 and 2010. Participants, who were aged between 40 and 70 years, reported how frequently they ate meat and fish and the researchers calculated the incidence of new cancers that developed over an average period of 11 years using health records.
They accounted for diabetes status and sociodemographic, socioeconomic and lifestyle factors in their analyses. 247,571 (52 percent) of participants ate meat more than five times per week, 205,382 (44 percent) of participants ate meat five or fewer times per week, 10,696 (2 percent) ate fish but not meat, and 8,685 (2 percent) were vegetarian or vegan. 54,961 participants (12 percent) developed cancer during the study period.
The researchers found that the overall cancer risk was 2 percent lower among those who ate meat five times or less per week, 10 percent lower among those who ate fish but not meat, and 14 percent lower among vegetarians and vegans, compared to those who ate meat more than five times per week.
When comparing the incidence of specific cancers with participants’ diet, the group found that those who ate meat five times or less per week had a 9 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer, compared to those who ate meat more than five times per week.
Further, they found that the risk of prostate cancer was 20 percent lower among men who ate fish but not meat and 31 percent lower among men who followed a vegetarian diet, compared to those who ate meat more than five times per week. Post-menopausal women who followed a vegetarian diet had an 18 percent lower risk of breast cancer than those who ate meat more than five times per week. However, the findings suggested that this was due to vegetarian women tending to have a lower body mass index (BMI) than women who ate meat.
The researchers cautioned that the observational nature of their study did not allow for conclusions about a causal relationship between diet and cancer risk. Additionally, as UK Biobank dietary data were collected at a single time-point, rather than over a continuous period of time, it may not be representative of participants’ lifetime diets.
The authors suggested that future research could investigate the associations between diets containing little or no meat and the risk of individual cancers in larger populations with longer follow-up periods.