Plant-Based Diet: A Potential Ally Against Cancer

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States with an estimated 599,107 lost lives in 2017 alone. To make matters more horrific and devastating, on a global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that cancer was responsible for an estimated 9.6 million deaths in 2018. According to various medical studies, however, a third of cancer-related deaths could be prevented with proper diet and nutrition.

Dieticians, nutritionists, and healthcare professionals have long recommended the consumption of foods growing from the ground. Decades of scientific research also suggests that the ideal diet for cancer prevention is one rich in plant-based options, which include nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and legumes, among others. Therefore, though meat eaters occupy a significantly large percentage of the world population, Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program dietitian Angie Murad, RDN, LD. says “there is a lot more evidence to move towards a plant-based diet.”

Here is how a plant-based diet may help fight cancer.

Vegans and vegetarians have a reduced risk of cancer

For many Americans, breakfast, lunch, and dinner center around meat. After all, a typical meal for most social classes may include eggs, bacon, clubhouse sandwiches, or meatloaf. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that one American may consume about 222.2 pounds of meat per year.

Now, when a group of researchers interviewed 70,000 volunteers about their diets, they found lower cancer rates in men and women who did not eat meat at all. Vegans — people who do not consume meat, dairy eggs, honey, and other animal products — had the lowest rates of cancer compared to those who followed a different diet. Vegetarians — individuals who avoid eating meat, but may consume milk, eggs, fish, and other animal products — were next line. Of course, it is important to understand that eating or not eating meat was not the sole difference between people who did or did not develop cancer. Men and women diagnosed with a malignant disease also had a higher body mass index, rarely exercised, and have or had a history of smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.

The role of a plant-based diet in cancer prevention

So, do vegans and vegetarians have a lower risk of cancer because they avoid eating meat? Or are they more resistant to cancer because of what they eat?

  1. Plant-based food is packed with nutrients

It is factual that plant-based produce such as fruits, green leafy vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts, and whole grains are abundant sources of vitamins and minerals. Moreover, research has proven time and time again that eating plenty of these nutritious foods is associated with lower cancer rates.

  1. Plants may protect the body’s cells against damage

Plants produce phytochemicals that may play a vital role in protecting cells from damage. Phytochemicals offer several benefits, including anti-inflammatory properties.

  1. Fiber in plants may lower the risk of certain cancers

Another way fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods may prevent cancer is by increasing fiber consumption. Young women who consumed fiber-rich diets had a 25 percent less chance of getting breast cancer later in life, according to a study from 2016. Another study concluded that each 10 grams of daily fiber may lower the risk of colorectal cancer by 10 percent.

  1. Plant-based meals typically have fewer calories

The link between plant-based nutrition and cancer prevention could be even simpler, says Murad. “When people eat a more plant-based diet, they naturally consume fewer calories, which helps to maintain a healthy weight.” Vegans and vegetarians are less likely to be overweight or obese, which is a well-known risk factor for some forms of cancer.

How meat impacts the prevalence of cancer development

If people could prevent cancer by consuming more phytochemicals and fiber, then meat lovers could still be tempted to eat their steak or chicken, but this time with a healthy salad on the side. Researchers, however, suggest a link between cancer and meat.

In one study, eating 3.5 ounces of red meat per day was found to increase the relative risk of colorectal polyps by 2 percent. Furthermore, consuming around 1.75 ounces of hot dogs, cold cuts, canned luncheon meats, and other processed meats raised the risk by 29 percent.

The real problem with meat products

In brief, scientists and healthcare professionals infer that eating more meat increases people’s risk of dying earlier, whether from cancer or other health-related causes. Cooked red meat produces chemical compounds that may lead to cancer, and the compounds in processed meats seem to have a similar effect.

Eating less red and processed meat is better for your health overall. If you don’t want to follow a strict plant-based diet, Murad recommends limiting your consumption of red or processed meat to no more than 12 to 18 ounces per week. Three ounces is about the size of your palm.

How to make better food choices

If you wish to make a positive change in your lifestyle by shifting to a more plant-based diet, then Murad suggests making gradual alterations. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Go meatless once a week. Going meat-free at least once a week is an excellent way to kickstart your goal of eating a more plant-based diet. Can’t pick which day of the week to give up meat? Join the rest of the world and practice Meatless Mondays.
  • Eat more beans and lentils. Reduce the amount of meat in some of your recipes and up the amount of beans and lentils. “Those types of foods fill more space on your plate, and we often eat with our eyes, so you don’t feel like you’re being deprived,” says Murad. Plus, they help satiate even the biggest of appetites.
  • Treat meat like a side dish or garnish, not a main course. “At our Mayo cooking classes, Chef Jen Welper has guests cut turkey bacon into very small pieces and sprinkle them over a pita pizza,” says Murad. This way, you are still satisfying your craving for meat, but without eating too much of it. 

Small, gradual changes are enough to make a significant impact on your health. So, go ahead and enjoy a healthy serving of meat (except on Mondays!), but remember to celebrate Eat Your Vegetables Day every single day of the week.

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