Vegetarian Diets and Cancer
According to a 2003 survey by the Vegetarian Resource Group, nearly 6 million adults in the United States follow a vegetarian (may include eggs and dairy) or vegan (completely meat, dairy, and egg free) diet. People may follow a vegetarian or vegan diet for a variety of reasons such as a dislike of meat, desire for better health, a concern for the environment and animal welfare, or because of religious beliefs. Regardless of the "why" of vegetarian diets, many people still wonder, "What are the health benefits of following a meatless diet?"
When considering the possible health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is important to keep the following points in mind.
First, it is possible to eat a diet of potato chips, cookies, and candy and still be a vegetarian. These "junk-food" vegetarian diets are not healthy and certainly are less healthy than a well-balanced diet that includes small amounts of animal foods such as meat and milk.
Second, issues around animal foods such as meat and milk are highly influenced by politics in this country. Pro-animal food groups say that meat and dairy foods are absolutely necessary for good health. Pro-vegetarian and vegan groups say that meat and dairy are very bad for health and cause many diseases, including cancer. In reality, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Meat and dairy are not necessary for good health. However, when eaten in small amounts, as part of a healthy diet, these foods are not the main cause of chronic diseases such as cancer.
Third, keep in mind that the key to reduced cancer risk is small amounts of meat. Plenty of research tells us that eating more than a few servings of meat per week, including red meat, heavily cooked or char-grilled meats, and processed meats such as sausage and salami can increase cancer risk.
Fourth, the majority of research on diet and cancer focuses not on vegetarians, but rather on people who eat a lot of plant food. Hundreds of studies tell us that eating a diet in which the majority of calories come from vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes is an effective way to reduce cancer risk, regardless of whether that diet contains small amounts of meat.
Finally, another issue that further complicates the picture is that in general, vegetarians and vegans have better health habits. People who practice vegetarianism often are in better health for a variety of reasons. They exercise more, they are thinner, they eat less fat, and they smoke less than meat eaters. Any one of these health habits will reduce risk of cancer, regardless of the presence or absence of meat in the diet!
Putting It All Together
The most important point to remember is that there are many reasons why vegetarians and vegans appear to have protection against cancer and other diseases. Eating plenty of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes is one of the main reasons why a vegetarian diet may be better protection against cancer.
However, small amounts of meat, as part of a total healthy diet, do not appear to increase cancer risk. But keep in mind that eating more than a few servings of meat per week, particularly red meat, heavily cooked meat, and processed meat is linked with higher cancer risk.
The Bottom Line
There is not much difference in personal health benefit from a diet that is completely vegetarian vs. a diet that is rich in plant food and has a small amount of meat in it. The benefit comes from a total healthy diet pattern that is loaded with plant food, not from avoiding all meat.
The key is balance: If you want to eat meat, do so in moderation!
If you are interested in shifting toward a vegetarian diet, be certain to eat a wide variety of vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and legumes (beans). Vegetarian diets can easily meet your nutrition needs, as long as they include plenty of different types of plant foods. Variety is the key to good health! You may have heard that you have to eat specific foods in specific ways to have a well-balanced vegetarian diet. This is not true.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to "combine proteins" or supplement a lot of vitamins and minerals to have a healthy vegetarian diet. However, a few nutrients do deserve your special attention. Vegetarians need to make sure that they eat good sources of vitamin B12, iron, calcium, and protein.
Fortified cereals and fortified soy milk and other non-dairy milk options can provide plenty of vitamin B12. These foods often provide calcium and vitamin D as well.
Fortified cereals, legumes (beans), soy beans, leafy green vegetables, whole grains, and dried fruit can provide plenty of iron.
Legumes (beans), nuts and nut butters, seeds, soy foods, and whole grains can provide plenty of protein.
Dairy foods, if you chose to eat them, can provide calcium and protein.
If you do not like dairy foods, use fortified non-dairy milk options, such as fortified soy or rice milk, which are good calcium sources. Green leafy vegetables such as collard greends and kale are loaded with calcium and even almonds and broccoli are good sources of calcium.
As you can see, there are plenty of food options for vegetarians that can provide important nutrients to the diet and ensure good health.
For some tasty and healthy meatless options, see our Recipes in the Wellness Nutrition section of the website!
This content was last reviewed
August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.