Vegan and Vegetarian Foundation’s cancer prevention advice

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The Vegan and Vegetarian Foundation (VVF) has suggested that women can reduce their risk of breast cancer by cutting the amount of meat and dairy in their diet.

In its press release, Professor Jane Plant suggests that “high levels of animal fats and proteins” play a role in the development of hormone-related cancers such as breast cancer.

The press release also points to evidence to support its claim, stating: “A recent study carried out by experts from Oxford, Cornell and Beijing universities showed the difference is down to diet.”

This is very different to the conclusion of World Cancer Research Fund’s Expert Report, the most comprehensive ever review of evidence on how cancer risk is affected by diet, physical activity and weight.

Our Report found there is convincing evidence that alcohol increases breast cancer risk, while excess body fat increases and being regularly physically active probably reduces risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. There is also convincing evidence that breastfeeding reduces the mother’s risk of breast cancer.

For meat, the evidence that consumption of meat affects breast cancer risk is too limited to draw firm conclusions.

There is, though, strong evidence that red and processed meats increase risk of bowel cancer. This is why we recommend people limit consumption of red meat to 500g (cooked weight) per week and avoid eating processed meat.

Our Report found that the evidence that consumption of milk or dairy products affects risk of breast cancer was also too limited to draw conclusions.

Given that our Report’s findings about breast cancer risk factors are so different to the claims made in the VVF press release, I contacted them and asked for more information about the “recent” study they refer to. They sent me a link to a study called the Geographic study of mortality, biochemistry, diet and lifestyle in rural China.

It is true that some eminent scientists have conducted this study, for which the last data were collected in 1993, and the principal investigator was a member of our 2007 Expert Panel. However, it is not a study about what causes breast cancer.

In the “implications” section of the summary, it states: “The chief purpose is to describe the wide range of differences between different counties in lifestyles and disease-specific mortality rates in rural China, rather than to analyse differences between counties in search of direct evidence of causes.”

And yet the VVF has used this study, which draws no conclusions on what causes breast cancer, as evidence that women who want to reduce their risk of breast cancer should cut down on meat and dairy.

I suppose it’s not particularly surprising that an organisation called the “Vegetarian and Vegan Foundation” is advising against eating animal products.

But while I would support anyone’s right to take a moral position on eating animal products, the VVF promotes itself not as an ethical charity but as a health organisation.

According to its website, it was “set up to monitor and to explain the increasing amount of scientific research linking diet to health – providing accurate information on which to make informed choices.”

But we think this press release is likely to hinder, rather than help, people’s ability to make informed choices.

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