August 12, 2022

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Alex Häuser
14th June, 2022

Oxford University research compared health scores between vegetarian, pescatarian, and meat diets, guess which scored the highest!

Following a meat-free diet can have considerable health benefits according to a large-scale analysis of diet and cancer risk. Compared to regular meat eaters, vegetarians have a 14% reduced chance of developing any type of cancer. Meanwhile pescatarians – who eat fish alongside an otherwise vegetarian diet – have a 10% lower risk and those who consume smaller amounts of meat are 2% less likely to contract cancer.

The study, published in the journal BMC Medicine and co-funded by World Cancer Research Fund and Cancer Research UK was carried out by a team of researchers from the University of Oxford. They analysed data on over 470,000 Britons in an observational study through which researchers observed changes to people’s health without asking them to make dietary changes.

Lead researcher Cody Watling, from Oxford Population Health’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit, said, “this means we can’t know for sure if the links we’ve seen are directly caused by diet, or if they’re due to other factors”. However, he also emphasised that they adjusted the results in the study carefully to account for other important causes of cancer, such as age, sex, smoking, alcohol consumption, and sociodemographic status.

To obtain sufficient data for the analysis, the research team used the UK Biobank, a database of detailed genetic and health information from nearly 500,000 Britons. When participants were recruited between 2006 and 2010, they filled out questionnaires about their diet, including how often they consumed foods such as meat and fish. The Oxford researchers then divided the participants into four groups according to their diet and followed them for 11 years using their medical records to understand how their health had changed over that time.

The research also examined the risk of developing the three most common cancers in the UK – bowel, breast, and prostate.  According to Watling, “previous studies suggested that meat-free diets are associated with lower cancer risk overall, but evidence for a lower risk of certain types of cancer was inconclusive.” The Oxford research found that people who eat a low-meat diet have a 9% lesser chance of contracting bowel cancer than regular meat eaters. It also showed women following a vegetarian diet have an 18% lower risk of breast cancer, and pescatarians and vegetarians are less likely to develop prostate cancer (20% and 31% respectively).

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Alex Häser is the Radio Editor and Presenter for I,Science and is studying an MSc in Science communication at Imperial College London

This article was sub-edited by John Bader, the News Editor for I,Science and Science Media Production master’s student at Imperial College London