PSAs about cancer are in abundance; everywhere you look, alarm bells ring with pundits who warn of cancer causing agents. It’s all fair and fine, seeing as various types of cancer affect an unprecedented percentage of people in America, and globally. However, it gets complicated when there’s misinformation that is furnished as the truth. This is especially the case with what we eat, as has been seen with articles that purport to the existence of cancer as a result of vegetarianism.

While there’s a possibility that what we eat can cause cancer, it’s important to know the facts before we switch diets. Vegans and vegetarians are said to be at risk of suffering from cancer as a result of their diets.

As recent as March 2016, the Telegraph released an article discussing the long-term effects of vegetarianism and the cancer risk it carries. In it, the author argued that long term vegetarian’s DNA changed over generations as a result of their diet. What was most alarming about the article is that the change in DNA was likely to lead to inflammation, which would result in the risk of cancer being elevated.

This is not the only article discussing these findings. Cosmo UK and the New York Post all published articles with information on the research, which makes it more believable even for those who read from more than one source. To make matters worse, the information published by the media was actually provided by accredited researchers, with The Telegraph using scientists from Cornel to validate their point.

With most people using media such as the Telegraph to understand the realities around them, such an article would likely cause a certain degree of panic. Where such articles fall short is in how they contextualize the findings made by scientists however.

The headline for the Telegraph article was titled “Long term vegetarian diet changes human DNA raising risk of cancer and heart disease”. As you would have noticed, the title put aside correlation in favor of causality when, in fact, the research stated a correlation between vegetarian diets and changes in DNA.

What’s more, a detailed analysis of the report shows that there was no definitive conclusion on the matter. In fact, researchers found that some people who had vegetarian ancestors also inherited a gene called the vegetarian allele, which produces synthetic omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which help with brain function.

Too much of these fatty acids can cause inflammation, but the problem is that most vegetarians actually don’t have it due to their diet. Researchers also suggested that those who have the vegetarian allele should stick to a vegetarian diet in order to avoid an increased level of fatty acids in their system.

In other words, being a vegetarian doesn’t cause cancer. The research itself is very important as it shows us how genetics can change over time due to our diet. However, the way it is translated by publishers can be too sensationalist, leading to too much panic amongst both vegetarians and none vegetarians.

While some may think there is no harm in such information, lack of clarity would have many abandon a perfectly fine diet. Even worse, those who have the vegetarian allele diet could also switch diets, increasing their risk of contracting cancer instead of avoiding it.

This all means that there needs to be more responsible and accountable reporting by those in media, including this author. Our objective is to report on facts and interpret findings as partial as possible to ensure the general public make up their own decisions on the realities they live. In so doing, we empower people’s lives, helping them live healthy.

If you have anything to add to this article, or find any contradictions, your comments are welcome, as it helps bring more clarity on the matter, encouraging a bigger debate on both our diets and responsible reporting.


Molecular Biology and Evolution