Eating chicken during high school may reduce the risk of a precancerous condition that may develop into colon cancer, a new study finds.
In a study of nearly 20,000 women, those who ate more chicken during their teen years had lower risks of developing colorectal adenomas, which are benign tumors that may progress into colon cancer.
The researchers didn't find a direct relationship between red meat intake and adenomas, but the results showed that replacing one serving per day of red meat with one serving of poultry or fish may reduce the risks of rectal and advanced adenomas by about 40 percent.
"Among different cancers, colorectal cancer is the most influenced by diet," said study researcher Dr. Katharina Nimptsch. "Compared to something like smoking, diet is not a large cancer risk factor, but it does have an impact."
Previous research has found that a diet high in red and processed meat may increase risks of colon cancer. Other risk factors for developing colon cancer include heavy alcohol consumption, lack of exercise, as well as diabetes and a diet rich in fat.
However, previous studies have investigated diet during adulthood, rather than focusing on what people eat earlier in life, and their future cancer risk.
"Colorectal carcinogenesis is a long process that can take several decades, and the initial steps of carcinogenesis may occur at young ages," the researchers wrote in their study.
In the study, 19,771 women ages 34 to 51 answered questions about their diet during high school. Over the following 10 years, 1,494 of the women were diagnosed with colorectal adenomas. Of these adenomas, 305 were in an advanced stage.
"Our findings do not suggest an association between red meat intake during adolescence and colorectal adenomas later in life, but higher poultry intake during this time was associated with a lower risk of colorectal adenomas," the researchers said.
Eating more poultry and fish in adulthood didn't seem to change the risk, according to the study.
The researchers found it surprising that the results didn't show a link between red meat and the risk of adenomas, Nimptsch said. "When you look at the amount of meat people ate, it was really high." However, there were few women in the study who ate very little red meat; perhaps there was not enough variation to see a significant difference in risk, she said.
As with other observational studies, the findings cannot show a cause-and-effect relationship. "Before recommendations are made based on these findings, it is necessary that results are confirmed," Nimptsch said.
The results add to previous evidence that eating poultry may decrease risk of colon cancer. However, what mechanism might underlie the link remains unclear.
The study was published June 19 in the American Journal of Epidemiology.