Will Avoiding Meat Really Lower Your Risk of Cancer?

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Key Takeaways

  • Research has shown that what you eat can play a role in your risk for diseases, including many types of cancer.
  • A new study suggested that people who eat more meat may have a higher cancer risk than people who eat less, or no, meat.
  • Experts say that including small portions of certain meats in an overall healthy diet can be part of a cancer-preventing lifestyle.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death among adults in the United States. Some cancer risk factors are out of our control, like family history and age.

That said, we do have the power to implement certain lifestyle habits that may lower our risk of getting cancer in our lifetimes.

A recent study published in BMC Medicine found that people who ate little or no meat seemed to have a lower risk of certain types of cancer.

However, experts say that you may not need to cut meat out of your diet altogether.

The Study

Research has suggested that people who follow a vegetarian diet have a lower cancer risk. People who follow a vegetarian diet have lower body mass indexes (BMIs) and different hormonal profiles than people who eat meat.

However, it’s unclear whether being a vegetarian is what has a protective role in cancer prevention or if there are other factors at work.

To help determine whether a relationship between avoiding meat and cancer risk truly exists, researchers set out to look for a link between meat consumption and risks of different types of cancer.

Who Was Included?

The researchers looked at data on 472,377 cancer-free people who were part of the UK Biobank cohort.

All the participants were categorized into regular meat-eaters, low meat-eaters, fish-eaters, and vegetarians. People were considered:

  • Regular meat-eaters ate processed meat, beef, lamb or mutton, pork, chicken, turkey, or other poultry more than five times a week
  • Low meat-eaters ate meat, at most, five times per week
  • Fish eaters ate fish but did not eat any meat (e.g., beef, lamb, pork, or poultry)
  • Vegetarians ate no meat

Lower Meat Intake, Lower Cancer Risk 

The researchers looked at how many people developed cancer, including colorectal cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, and prostate cancer.

When they followed up with participants over 10 years, the researchers found that:

  • Low meat-eater, fish-eater, and vegetarians had a lower risk of cancer risk compared to regular meat-eaters
  • Low meat-eaters had a lower risk of colorectal cancer than regular meat-eaters
  • Vegetarian postmenopausal women had a lower risk of breast cancer than women who were fish and meat-eaters
  • Vegetarian and fish-eating men had a lower risk of prostate cancer than men who were meat-eaters

Limitations of the Research

The results of the study did provide some possible insights into how our diet choices may impact our cancer risk. However, experts say the results should be taken with a grain of salt.

It’s important to know that the study was observational. As is the case for all observational studies, correlation does not equal causation.

That means that just because there is a link between two things—in this case, meat consumption and cancer risk—it does not mean that one caused the other.

Experts also pointed to some other important limitations of the study.

Missing Details

Shalene McNeil, PhD, RD, executive director of nutrition research at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told Verywell that the study “highlights the challenges of focusing on individual foods instead of considering the total diet.”

However, McNeil also said that “unfortunately, details most people are curious about are lacking.”

Specifically, McNeil pointed out that the study did not describe “the types of meat the participants consumed, the other foods that were part of their overall diet, their total amount of calories, or their body weights/body mass index over time.”

Meat Types and Cooking

When it comes to cancer risk and beef, it is important to distinguish between whether a person is eating ultra-processed meat or fresh cuts of lean meat.

Processed meat like hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and certain deli meats are considered to have cancer-causing properties.

Other varieties, like fresh, lean cuts of beef and other meat, haven’t been found to have these effects.

The cooking method may play a role, too. For example, studies have shown that charred meat has more carcinogenic compounds in it than meat cooked in other ways, like baking or broiling.

The Population

There were also some limitations of the study based on the population that was included.

For one, the people in the study were mostly white and of European descent. That means the results may not apply to other racial and ethnic groups.

“More research needs to be conducted on this topic, as the dietary data was collected only at a single time, not continuously throughout the study, which poses lots of risk for underreporting or misreporting one’s diet unintentionally,” Roxana Ehsani, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a national media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Verywell.

Ehsani added that while “women who followed a vegetarian diet had a lower risk of breast cancer,” the researchers actually concluded that the lower risk was “due to vegetarian women having a lower BMI than women who ate meat.” That means the finding doesn’t account for their vegetarian diet but BMI.

The behavior of the people who participated in the study could also have affected the results.

Anthea Levi, MS, RD, a registered dietitian at Culina Health, told Verywell that for the study, “participants self-reported their dietary intake, which we know is subject to considerable error.”

“It’s also very possible that participants’ diets changed over the course of this 11-or-so year study,” she said.

Should You Quit Meat?

There are many ways to prevent cancer, though none of them is a guarantee. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making lifestyle changes to support your wellness.

McNeil said that the best way to improve your overall health “is to eat a healthy, balanced diet, which can include meats, like beef, maintain a healthy weight, be physically active and of course, don’t smoke.”

“It can be difficult to cut out meat completely from someone’s diet, especially if they regularly consume it,” Ehsani said. “It doesn’t need to be completely excluded from the diet to reduce cancer risk.”

Ehsani recommends consuming fish in place of meat once or twice a week. You can also eat more beans, lentils, nuts, or seeds instead of meat. These steps can help you reduce your meat intake without having to cut it from your diet altogether.

Levi agreed, adding that the study was “further confirmation that a whole-food-based diet that emphasizes plants and heart-healthy proteins like fatty fish is the way to go.”

If you’re a meat-eater, Levi suggests that you “try to integrate a few meatless days weekly.”

On the days when you do eat meat, Levi recommends that you “give animal proteins a supporting role on your plate and make veggies the star of the show instead.”

What This Means For You

If you are trying to reduce your cancer risk, eating more plant-based meals with fish and occasional servings of meat appear to support that goal.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control And Prevention. An update on cancer deaths in the United States.

  2. 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 Med. 2022 Feb 24;20(1):73. doi:10.1186/s12916-022-02256-w

  3. American Cancer Society. What's wrong with hot dogs, hamburgers, and bacon?.

  4. National Cancer Institute. Diet.