Eating less red meat and more chicken significantly reduces a woman’s odds of developing aggressive breast cancer, researchers have found.
Women who eat a lot of meat could cut their risk of invasive breast cancer by 28 percent if they replaced it with poultry, the study suggests.
The findings, published today, examined the dietary habits of 42 000 women in the US. The women, aged between 35 and 74, all had sisters or half-sisters who had been diagnosed with breast cancer – but were themselves cancer-free at the start of the study.
They were then tracked for the next eight years, over which time 1 536 of them developed invasive breast cancer.
The researchers, led by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and Columbia University in New York, analysed the results according to how much meat the women ate.
The participants were first divided evenly into four groups depending on red meat consumption. Those in the group who ate the most red meat had a 23 percent higher risk than women who consumed least.
Researchers then divided the women into four groups depending on how much poultry they ate. Unlike for red meat, they found higher consumption of poultry actually decreased the risk of invasive breast cancer.
The findings, published in the International Journal of Cancer, found women who ate the most poultry had a 15 percent lower risk than those who ate least.
The researchers calculated that if women both cut down on red meat and increased their consumption of poultry, the cancer risk would drop even further – by 28 percent.
Research has previously suggested red meat raises cancer risk – but until now, scientists were unaware that poultry appears to protect against the disease.
Dr Dale Sandler, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina, said that although researchers are not sure why poultry reduces breast cancer risk, "our study does provide evidence that substituting poultry for red meat may be a simple change that can help reduce the incidence of breast cancer".
Researchers said the fact they had only assessed women with a family history of breast cancer may have exaggerated the detrimental impact of red meat, but said it was necessary to highlight the links between diet and cancer.
Dr Mieke Van Hemelrijck, of King’s College London, said: "The study is based on women who have a sister with breast cancer – so we can’t be sure whether these findings apply to the general population." But she said results could help scientists understand how diet influences cancer development.