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Vegetarians less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters

Vegetarians are 12 per cent less likely to develop cancer than meat eaters, according to new research published in the British Journal of Cancer.

In a study of over 61,000 people, Cancer Research UK researchers from University of Warwick and Oxford University followed meat eaters and vegetarians for over 12 years.

They found that the numbers of people diagnosed with stomach, bladder and cancers of the blood* were much higher in meat eaters than in vegetarians.

The most striking difference was in cancers of the blood with 180 meat eaters diagnosed compared to 49 vegetarians.

Professor Margaret Thorogood, Professor in Epidemiology from the University of Warwick said: “We have found that people who do not eat meat have a slightly lower overall risk of cancer, but did not find any difference in the risk of colon cancer, which other studies have shown to be connected with eating meat. We found that vegetarians (who do not eat meat or fish) had much lower risk of cancers of the blood, and this finding requires more research to explore possible mechanisms.”

In the 20 different types of cancer studied the authors allowed for other lifestyle behaviours including smoking, alcohol intake and obesity which may affect the chance of developing cancer. 

Sara Hiom, director of health information at Cancer Research UK, said: “These interesting results add to the evidence that what we eat affects our chances of developing cancer.  We know that eating a lot of processed meat increases the risk of stomach cancer. But the links between diet and cancer risk are complex and more research is needed to see how big a part diet plays and which specific dietary factors are most important. 

“The low number of fish eaters and vegetarians who developed cancer in this study supports Cancer Research UK’s advice that people should eat a healthy, balanced diet high in fibre, fruit and vegetables and low in saturated fat, salt and red and processed meat.”

Notes to editors:

For more details or to contact Professor Thorogood, contact Kelly Parkes-Harrison, University of Warwick, 02476 150483, 07824 540863, *Blood cancers include Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma and leukaemia **The results include data from two previous studies – Oxford Vegetarian Study and EPIC-Oxford