risk management

Low-Meat Diet Impacts Cancer Risk

Diets containing less meat may result in lower risk of overall cancer, according to the results of a prospective analysis.

Researchers assessed data from 472,377 individuals aged 40 to 70 years whose data was included in the UK Biobank from 2006 to 2010. All participants were then categorized into 1 of 4 diet groups: regular meat-eaters (n = 247,571), low-meat eaters (n = 205,385), fish-eaters (n = 10,696), and vegetarians (n = 8685).

Regular meat-eaters were defined as consuming processed, red meat or poultry more than 5 times per week while low meat-eaters were defined as consuming meat 5 or less times per week. Vegans (n = 446) were also included in the vegetarian group. 

A total of 54,961 incident cancers were included in the 11.4-year follow-up period. Among the total incident cancers were 5882 cases of colorectal cancer, 7537 cases of postmenopausal breast cancer, and 9501 cases of prostate cancer.

Results indicate that being a low meat-eater, fish-eater, or vegetarian were associated with a lower risk of all cancer when compared with regular meat-eaters. Further, being a low meat-eater was associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer when compared with regular meat-eaters. However, this inverse association was only observed across the diet groups in men, not women.

There was also a lower risk of breast cancer in vegetarian postmenopausal women after adjusting for body mass index (BMI). A lower risk of prostate cancer was observed in men who were fish-eaters or vegetarians.

“The lower risk of colorectal cancer in low meat-eaters is consistent with previous evidence suggesting an adverse impact of meat intake,” the researchers concluded. “The lower risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in vegetarian women may be explained by their lower BMI. It is not clear whether the other differences observed for all cancers and for prostate cancer reflect any causal relationships or are due to other factors such as residual confounding or differences in cancer detection.”


—Leigh Precopio



Watling CZ, Schmidt JA, Dunneram Y, et al. Risk of cancer in regular and low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, and vegetarians: a prospective analysis of UK Biobank participants. BMC Medicine. Published online February 24, 2022. doi:10.1186/s12916-022-02256-w