It is no secret that diets high in meat and dairy can contribute to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other major conditions. Conversely, studies have found that eating mostly plant-based can lower your risk of dying from all causes of mortality. But is it possible that avoiding meat is a way to significantly reduce your risk of getting cancer? That is the finding of a recent study out of the UK: You can lower your cancer risk by 14 percent just by ditching meat.

The Oxford-based research team tracked about 470,000 people over 11 years and at the start, none had cancer. By the end, more than 54,000 had some form of cancer, and meat-eaters had the highest incidence, whereas those who ate the least meat but were mostly vegetarian or ate fish had the lowest reported cancer cases.

This was the first study that examined how diet directly increases cancer risk. It is also the first time that vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to be associated with the lowest cancer risk when compared to meat-eaters. Other studies have looked at how BMI and being overweight affect cancer risk. This study also found that high BMI increases the risk of cancer.

The research effort analyzed how a plant-based diet could be protective against cancer and the consumption of carcinogens. By using data from UK Biobank, the study analyzed the health of 472,000 British adults. The participants were segmented into four groups: Regular meat-eaters (Group 1), those who ate meat five or fewer times a week (Group 2), those who ate fish only or were pescatarians (Group 3), and those who defined themselves as vegetarians or vegans, eating no meat, fish or dairy (Group 4).

Vegetarians have lowest cancer risk

The research found that 12 percent of those studied – 54,961 people – developed cancer over the analysis period. Vegetarians and vegans were 14 percent less likely to develop cancer than those who consumed meat. The pescatarians fared better than meat-eaters but not as well as vegetarians or vegans; fish eaters were 10 percent less likely to develop cancer than meat-eaters.

“This study adds to a growing body of research reinforcing the positive, protective effects of a vegetarian diet,” Chief Executive of the Vegetarian Society Richard McIlwain said. “With cancer now affecting one in every two of us across the country, adopting a healthy vegetarian diet can clearly play a role in preventing this disease. Indeed, evidence from previous surveys suggests a balanced vegetarian diet can also reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, in addition to cancers.”

Cancer Risk Associated with Diet

Across the sample, of the 54,961 people diagnosed with cancer, there were 5,882 with colorectal cancer, 7,537 with breast cancer, and 9,501 who had prostate cancer.

Compared with regular meat-eaters, being a low meat-eater, fish-eater, or vegetarian were all associated with a lower risk of all cancer, the study found. Being a low meat-eater was associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer in comparison to regular meat-eaters.

Non-meat eaters had lower cancer rates

  • Men who were vegetarians showed a 31 percent lower risk of developing prostate cancer, whereas pescatarians had a 20 percent lower risk.
  • The participants who rarely ate meat had a 9 percent lower risk of showing signs of cancer later in life when compared to regular meat-eaters.
  • Vegetarian women had a lower risk of breast cancer by 18 percent, but this was wiped out if they had a high body mass index, so diet and weight both impacted breast cancer risk.

"The lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in vegetarian women may be explained by their lower BMI," the researchers concluded.

Cancer Research UK’s Head of Health and Patient Information Julie Sharp noted that flexitarians and anyone who reduces meat consumption are helping their health in the long run. While she concedes that “having some bacon or ham every now and then won’t do much harm,” she also warns that “If you are having a lot of meat a lot of the time then cutting down is a good idea, but a vegetarian diet doesn’t always mean someone is eating healthily.”

Want to Live Longer? Eat Plant-Based

The Oxford-based study reveals that by eating meat regularly, people are putting their personal health at risk. But how seriously are the health risks in total? One recent study claims that a mostly plant-based diet could actually prolong life expectancy by 10 years. The study explains that meat consumption is directly connected to several life-threatening illnesses including cancer as well as heart disease.

In regards to heart disease, one study suggests that by adopting a plant-centric diet earlier in life (aged 18 to 30), people can significantly lower their risk of heart disease 30 years later.

Another study found that cutting out red meat could lower your risk of heart disease by approximately 18 percent.

Meat has been linked to cancer

The World Health Organization has characterized red meat and processed meat as a class one carcinogen, which if used daily is as deadly to long-term health as smoking.

This is not the first study to link animal products and a diet high in meat and dairy to the increased risk of cancer.

Other studies suggest that the same diet that increases the risk of heart disease also increases a person’s cancer risk.

Dairy, especially full-fat dairy, has also been associated with higher cancer rates. Dr. Shireen Kassam, MBBS, FRCPath, Ph.D., founder, and director of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK, writes that dairy consumption is connected to higher rates of prostate cancer in men.

Meanwhile, studies have connected dairy consumption and breast cancer in women, and Dr. Neal Barnard, the founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, has written extensively about the connection between cheese and increased risk of breast cancer.

Dr. Barnard has proposed adding a warning label to cheese, to tell consumers that eating cheese can raise their risk of breast cancer. Barnard has written a book about why cheese is addictive, called The Cheese Trap since it contains casein which acts on our opiate receptors, so while cheese has the same hormonal risk as milk, it's difficult to quit.

Read More: Drinking Milk Increases Risk for Breast Cancer, a New Study Shows

Bottom Line: Eating meat and dairy can increase your cancer risk by 14 percent.

A new study looked at diet and the association between eating meat and dairy and your risk of cancer and found that those who eat the least meat have the lowest incidence of cancer, while those who eat the most meat and dairy have the highest risk. To cut down cancer risk? Check out The Beet’s guides on eating to reduce colon cancer and breast cancer risks.

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