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Scientists Say There’s a ‘Vegetarian Gene’ and It Could Be Linked to Cancer

A Cornell University study has found that the “vegetarian gene” in the DNA of people from countries with a history of eating plant-based diets also leaves them more vulnerable to certain types of cancer.
Phoebe Hurst
London, GB

Following a meat-free diet has many benefits. Decreased risk of diabetes, stroke, and obesity. Taking a stand against inhumane, methane-producing cattle farms. Batting for the same dietary team as Natalie Portman and Gandhi. Remaining quietly smug while your friends struggle with the aftermath of last night's dodgy lamb doner …

But here's something that may stop the vegetarians of the world from going HAM (or should that be Tofurky?) on the virtues of plant-based living. According to new research from Cornell University, there is a "vegetarian gene" that helps those eschewing meat and fish to create additional fatty acids.

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Good news, right? Nature's way of giving plant-based eaters a helping hand. Power to the veggies!

READ MORE: New Research Says Vegetarian Diets Could Actually Be Worse for the Planet

Well, not so much. Published in the Molecular Biology and Evolution journal, the study also discovered that this vegetarian gene, which is found in the DNA of people from countries like India with a history of eating plant-based diets, also leaves them more vulnerable to high inflammation and certain types of cancer.

This is because the veggie gene causes the body to create arachidonic acid, allowing for easier absorption of essential fatty acids from plants. When coupled with cheap modern cooking oils like sunflower oil, however, the body takes up too much arachidonic acid, leading to dangerously high inflammation and colon cancer.

Cornell University human nutrition professor Tom Brenna explained: "Those whose ancestry derives from vegetarians are more likely to carry genetics that more rapidly metabolise plant fatty acids. In such individuals, vegetable oils will be converted to the more pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid, increasing the risk for chronic inflammation that is implicated in the development of heart disease, and exacerbates cancer."

This could explain why previous research has shown that vegetarian populations are more likely to suffer colorectal cancer than meat eaters, despite red meat being known to raise the risk of the disease.

READ MORE: A Third of Vegetarians Eat Meat When They're Drunk

And it's not just cancer. The vegetarian gene also hinders the production of the beneficial omega-3 fatty acid, which protects against heart disease. Many modern vegetarian diets contain less omega-3-rich foods like fish and nuts, and more of the unhealthy omega-6 fats found in vegetable oil. Brenna added: "Changes in the dietary omega-6 to omega-3 balance may contribute to the increase in chronic disease seen in some developing countries."

According to the researchers, the message for veggies is simple. Brenna advised: "Use vegetable oils that are low in omega-6 linoleic acid such as olive oil."

And the odd Friday night drumstick can't hurt either, surely?