Vegetarians May Have Lower Cancer Risk

Posted on July 7th, 2009 by

Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians and those who eat fish but not meat appear to have a lower risk of several types of cancer. The results of this study were published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Studies have suggested that consumption of red or processed meat may increase the risk of several types of cancer, including cancers of the colon and rectum, esophagus, stomach, pancreas, lung, endometrium (uterus), and prostate.

To explore whether vegetarians (people who do not eat fish or meat) have a lower risk of cancer than meat eaters, researchers evaluated information from more than 61,000 British men and women; 32,403 were meat eaters, 8,562 ate fish but not meat, and 20,601 were vegetarians.

Study participants have been followed for an average of 12 years. During this time, a total of 3,350 new cancers were diagnosed.

When assessing the risk of cancer in the three dietary groups (meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians), the researchers accounted for several underlying differences among the groups, including age, smoking status, alcohol use, body mass index, and physical activity.

The cancers that clearly differed in frequency among the groups were stomach cancer, ovarian cancer, bladder cancer, and hematologic cancers (non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and leukemia).

  • Compared with meat eaters, vegetarians had a 64% reduced risk of stomach cancer, a 53% reduced risk of bladder cancer, and a 45% reduced risk of hematologic cancers. Vegetarians did, however, have an increased risk of cervical cancer (risk was roughly twice as high as in meat eaters).
  • Fish eaters had a 63% reduced risk of ovarian cancer and a 43% reduced risk of prostate cancer.
  • The risk of all cancers combined was 18% lower in fish eaters and 12% lower in vegetarians.

The results of this study suggest that cancer risk is lower in fish eaters and vegetarians than in meat eaters.

Reference: Key TJ, Appleby PN, Spencer EA et al. Cancer incidence in British vegetarians. British Journal of Cancer. 2009;101:192-197.

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