Dairy products could help stave off bowel cancer, suggests a new study writes Tom Campbell.

The cancer, the second deadliest form of the disease in Britain, is responsible for around 15,000 deaths a year, although numbers have been falling since the 1970s thanks to early diagnosis and better treatment.

Eating plenty of fruit, fibre and vegetables was still the best way to avoid the disease, but researchers found dairy products also played a part. Professor Marc Bardou at the CIC INSERM in Dijon, France said: "Eating dairy products was associated with 13 per cent to 19 per cent lower risk of the disease.

"But the small number of available meta-analyses, and the many different research outcomes and variety of dairy products included make it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the quantities required to ward off the disease."

Prof Bardou added: "Screening for the disease can pick up the disease at an early treatable stage, but take-up varies considerably from country to country.

"And as it takes more than 15 years for bowel cancer to develop, a healthy lifestyle likely has a key role in helping to halt or stop its progress altogether."

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The researchers "trawled" through 80 clinical trials and observational studies to understand how different foods and medicines influenced the risk of getting bowel cancer.

Medicines, including aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as paracetamol and statins, were examined.

Dietary factors were also looked at, including vitamins A, B, C, E, D, food supplements such as magnesium, calcium, selenium and beta-carotene, as well as household foods, including coffee, tea, fish, dairy products, fibre, fruit, vegetables, meat and alcohol.

A small dose of aspirin was found to reduce the risk of bowel cancer by between 15 and 30 per cent.

Taking NSAIDs (non steroid anti-inflammatory drugs) for more than five years also reduced the chances of getting bowel cancer by up to 40 per cent, the researchers found.

Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Prof Badou said that eating more vegetables, fruits and fibres proved most effective, bringing down the risk of bowel cancer by up to 50 per cent, with better results for every extra 100g eaten per day.

Only vitamins A and B were found to protect against the disease, although results were inconsistent.

Professor Bardou said: "But there was no evidence that vitamins E, C, or multivitamins were protective.

"Similarly, there was no evidence that beta-carotene or selenium helped stave off the disease."

Red and processed meat was found to do the opposite, increasing the risk of bowel cancer by up to 20 per cent.

Just one or two drinks a day, likewise, significantly raised the chances of getting the disease.

Professor Bardou added: "The level of evidence is low or very low in most cases, mainly due to wide differences in study design, end points, numbers of participants.

"And they were unable to define 'an optimal dose and duration of exposure/intake for any of the products, even in the case of low dose aspirin and other compounds that have been extensively assessed'."

The findings could however still help clinicians advise patients on the best diet to lower bowel cancer risk.