Can A Vegetarian Diet Really Increase Cancer and Heart Attack Risks?

It has long been believed that a vegetarian diet is one of the healthiest ways to eat. However, some contradictory information from oncologists have shown that they have a 40 percent higher chance of developing bowel, intestinal or colon cancer. Since there have been strong links between red meat, cancer, and inflammation, doctors have had a hard time reconciling this information. A recent Cornell University study has helped to understand how a vegetarian diet combined with the intake of high levels of vegetable oils can not only cause this problem, it can create a mutation that can be passed on to your children.


The study compared two populations, one in India that was known to be culturally vegetarian (to avoid people who occasionally eat meat) and a group of meat eaters in Kansas. A series of DNA testing showed a series of distinct mutations that were found in the vegetarians. These mutations are known to increase sensitivity to fatty acids and to cause the production of pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid. This acid not only promotes inflammation, it blocks the production and use of the protective omega 3 acids that have been shown to be incredibly important in nerve and brain cells, as well as the protection of cell walls against inflammation.

The bodies of people who are on a vegetarian diet, which is naturally low in fatty acids, use its built-in survival mechanisms to make itself very sensitive to the limited fatty acids found in vegetables. If the diet stays low-fat, this allows the body to get what it needs from oily vegetables like avocados and olives, as well as seeds and nuts. However, adding high-fat vegetable oils that have a lot of omega-6 fatty acids can create the production of inflammatory arachidonic acid. It is this acid that will cause cancer and heart attack risk.

It appears that this mutation can be avoided if vegetarians eat a diet that is rich in omega-3 foods like seeds and nuts. This, in combination with avoiding too many vegetable oils high in Omega-6 fatty acids, can prevent a lot of these problems.

Though this genetic mutation can be inherited, it is not yet clear whether children or grandchildren of vegetarians who begin to eat meat would have a reversal of the mutation. If it arose as a part of the body's ability to adapt to changes, then it is possible that the mutation may disappear with the same.  

The choice to become a vegetarian continues to come with benefits and risks. One risk is deficiency in a number of vitamins and minerals. The iron found in vegetables is not very bioavailable, meaning that though broccoli or spinach may have more iron than a burger, it can’t be absorbed or used by the body. Vitamin B-12, a common vitamin found in animal sources, cannot be gained by plants and must be supplemented by some form of animal. Luckily, most vegetarians don't count bacteria, and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kim chi both have a good source of B-12.  

On the good side of vegetarianism, a commonly increasing problem with obesity and type II diabetes is very limited in vegetarians. Of course, it is still possible to be a "junk food" vegetarian, and to have obesity problems related to poor diet choices.


Disclaimer: Our content is created to the best of our knowledge, yet it is of general nature and cannot in any way substitute an individual consultation by your doctor. Your health is important to us.