New study indicates vegetarians have a lower cancer risk

one person eating plate of meat and another eating plate of vegetables

If you’re Australian and over 50, chances are you’ll remember the catchy little ditty that graced our ears via 1980s TV ads for beef. “Just feed the man, feed the man, feed the man meat,” it went. (You can catch a snippet of the ditty at the tail end of this ad.)

But new research suggests that feeding the man meat (besides perhaps entrenching a sexist stereotype) might not be the best thing one can do for the man’s health.

Researchers from Oxford University analysed data on more than 470,000 Britons and found that vegetarians have a 14 per cent lower chance of developing cancer than carnivores, while the risk of cancer for pescatarians (those whose meat intake comprises only seafood) was 10 per cent lower.

Read: Diet swap: A meat-eater goes vegan

The study follows numerous others that have suggested a link between various cancers and consumption of higher levels of red and processed meat.

Does this mean you should stop ‘feeding the man meat’?

Not necessarily. While the evidence for correlation between meat consumption and cancer grows stronger, meat may not necessarily be the cause. For instance, higher levels of meat consumption are also linked to weight and obesity problems, which could be a defining factor in cancer causes. Alternatively, there are suggestions that those who consume higher levels of meat are more likely to be smokers, and it could be the smoking that is playing a greater role in causality.

Read: Changing your diet could add 10 years to your life

On the other hand, recent research involving animals (who are generally non-smokers!) suggest that there is a direct causal link between the consumption of meat and cancer.

Orsolya Vincze and her colleagues at Hungary’s Centre for Ecological Research analysed post-mortem records for 110,148 animals from 191 mammal species that died in zoos to determine their risk of dying from cancer. They found that carnivorous mammals were much more likely to die of cancer than mammals that rarely or never ate animals.

Associate Professor Vincze and her team found that artiodactyls, a mostly herbivorous group that includes antelope, sheep and cows, were the least cancer-prone order of mammals, while kowari (Dasyuroides byrnei), a small, carnivorous Australian marsupial, was the most cancer-prone species.

Read: The cost of cancer – not all treatments are covered by the PBS

But don’t throw out those wagyu beef steaks just yet. Assoc. Prof. Vincze points out that one reason why carnivores may be more prone to cancer is that raw meat can contain viruses that have the potential to cause cancer when ingested. For example, cancers in some captive lions have been found to be related to papillomavirus in cow carcasses they ate.

The key word here might well be ‘raw’.

Nevertheless, the number of studies suggesting a link between eating meat (even if cooked) and increased cancer risk continues to grow, with an indication that the risk increases with the amount of meat consumed.

The best advice might therefore be: Feed the man meat – occasionally.

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