That’s the implication of a new report from Loma Linda University in California that has shown a vegetarian diet can cut the risk of developing colorectal disease by over 20 per cent.
Lead researcher Dr Michael Orlich said more lives could be saved if cancers were stopped from forming in the first place, rather than picked up during screening.
He described healthy meat free eating as a “primary prevention”, adding: “Diet is a potentially important approach to reduce the risk of developing colorectal cancer”.
The study used data from 77,000 adults, approximately half of whom were vegetarian. After seven years, 380 cases of colon cancer had been reported and 110 cases of rectal cancer.
“All vegetarians together had on average a 22 per cent reduction in the risk of developing colorectal cancer, compared with non-vegetarians,” said Orlich.
As well as eating less meat than the non-vegetarian cohort, vegetarians typically ate more fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, and consumed fewer sweets, snacks and alcoholic drinks.
Orlich added that while the meat-eaters who took part in the study were “at the low end” in terms of how much they consumed, “even compared to a moderate intake of meat, a zero intake looks better”.
The link between red and processed meat and colorectal cancer is well established.
In 2011, the most comprehensive report ever published on the subject said evidence of a connection was “convincing”. Pre-empting the new Loma Linda report, one of its authors said people who wanted to reduce their risk of colorectal cancer “should consider cutting down the amount [of red and processed meat] they eat”.
Another study in 2013 found that people with colorectal cancer could improve their chances of living longer by eating less red and processed meat.
The latest study was published online in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal this month.