Eat More Vegetarian Meals for Cancer Protection

Healthnotes Newswire (February 7, 2008)—Many studies have shown that fruits, vegetables, fiber, and fish are the key components of a diet that is most likely to prevent cancer. Eating red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) and processed meat (hot dogs, sausage, cold cuts, and many lunch meats) has been shown to increase the risk of some cancers, and now a new study, published in PloS (Public Library of Science) Medicine, adds evidence in favor of cutting down meat-heavy meals.

In this study, nearly 500,000 men and women between ages 50 and 71 who were enrolled in the National Institutes of Health–American Association of Retired Persons (NIH–AARP) Diet and Health Study filled out health and lifestyle questionnaires upon enrollment and were monitored for cancer diagnosis for an average of 6.8 years.

People who ate the most red meat, defined as all types of beef, pork, and lamb, had a 51% higher risk of esophageal cancer, 24% higher risk of colorectal cancer, 61% higher risk of liver cancer, and 20% higher risk of lung cancer than people who ate the least. People who ate the most processed meat, defined as bacon, lunch meats, cold cuts, ham, and sausage and hot dogs made from beef, pork, and poultry, were 20% more likely to develop colorectal cancer and 16% more likely to develop lung cancer than people who ate the least. The study did not specify what effects meats like unprocessed poultry or ham might have on cancer risk.

Eating for cancer prevention

• Get your veggies: A few foods like green tea, tomatoes, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and kale have received a lot of attention for their anticancer effects. Scientists think that these effects are due to their high content of special cancer-fighting antioxidants and other compounds.

• Get your fiber: Fiber-dense foods including beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains might prevent cancer by binding and helping to eliminate toxic, cancer-causing substances in the digestive tract, and by helping to keep blood sugar levels normal.

• Be picky about protein: People—usually vegetarians—who rely on legumes, nuts, and whole grains for protein generally get more fiber and tend to eat more fruits and vegetables than people who eat meat. A number of studies have found that vegetarians have lower cancer rates than nonvegetarians.

• Meat addicts, mix it up: Choose vegetarian options more often to reduce the number of meaty meals. And try replacing red meat with more fish or white meats. Many of today’s meat substitutes, such a products made from vegetable protein, can be found in easy, prespiced packages that are much harder to distinguish than skeptical meat-eaters might think.

“Many of the people I work with are trying to move toward a more healthful eating plan by trying more vegetarian dishes,” commented Mary Saucier Choate, author of the book and class series Better Eating for Life and a registered dietician who heads the Food and Nutrition Education program at the Co-op Food Stores in Hanover and Lebanon, New Hampshire. “A powerful first step toward this is simple—eat more dried beans and legumes. These do double duty as a vegetable and a source of protein (as well as fiber, folate, and trace minerals). I encourage people to choose convenient, low-sodium canned versions and add them to salads, soups, and pasta sauces to “beef” them up without any downside for health.”

(PloS Med 2007;4:online publication)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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