Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. But estimates suggest that as many as a third of cases could be prevented with diet and nutrition alone.

If this is true, what is the secret? Many experts recommend filling your plate with foods that grow from the ground. Decades of research suggests that the best diet for cancer prevention is all about plants. That means lots of fruits, vegetables and legumes, and little to no meat or other animal products.

Here’s how a plant-based diet can help fight cancer, and a brief look at what one looks like. For many Americans, meals center around the meat. After all, the Department of Agriculture reports that 222 pounds of meat are sold per person per year in the U.S.

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But when researchers asked nearly 70,000 volunteers about their diets, then tracked them over time, they found lower cancer rates among people who didn’t eat meat at all. In fact, vegans, those who don’t eat any animal products including fish, dairy or eggs, appeared to have the lowest rates of cancer of any diet. Next in line were vegetarians, who avoid meat but may eat fish or foods that come from animals, such as milk or eggs.

Now for you carnivores, don’t get mad at me just yet. It is important to note that eating meat or not wasn’t the only difference between people who did or didn’t get cancer.

People diagnosed with cancer also had a higher body mass index, meaning they were overweight, and they were less active, and more likely to have smoked.

So, what is the answer to this burning question, are vegetarians more resistant to cancer because they don’t eat meat, or is it because of what they eat instead, a plant based diet?

We know that plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains, are packed with nutrition. And research has also shown that eating lots of them is linked with lower cancer rates.

The reason why is thought to be related to the fact that plants produce many phytochemicals (plant chemicals) that may protect cells from damage. Phytochemicals have many beneficial effects, including that they are anti-inflammatory, and inflammation is felt to potentially be part of cancer development.

Another way plant-based foods may prevent cancer is by boosting fiber consumption. Studies have shown that young women who ate the most fiber-rich diets were 25% less likely to get breast cancer later in life.

Other research finds that each 10 grams of daily fiber could lower the risk of colorectal cancer by 10%.

In reality, this is simple, when people eat a more plant-based diet, they naturally consume fewer calories, which helps to maintain a healthy weight. Vegetarians are less likely to be overweight, a known risk factor for some types of cancers.

So what if I want my steak and eat it too? Maybe add a salad to that meal, and eat smaller portions of meat. In one study, each additional 3.5 ounces of red meat a day raised the risk of colorectal polyps by 2%.

Just half as much daily processed meat, such as deli meats or hot dogs, raised the risk by 29%.

So what’s the problem with meat? Eating more of it has been shown to increase the risk of dying from all causes, and the reason is that chemical compounds created when red meat is cooked are thought to be cancer causing. Compounds in processed meat also seem to contribute. The less red and processed meat you eat, the better your health.

If you don’t want to go cold turkey, a good guideline is to eat no more than 12 to 18 ounces of red meat or processed meat a week. Three to four ounces is about the size of a credit card.

And don’t just stop your current eating habits and change to something different, slowly shift to a more plant-based diet that you’ll want to stick with.

Set a goal of trying one new meat-free recipe a week. Decrease the overall amount of meat in some recipes by increasing the amount of beans, lentils or vegetables.

Finally, instead of using meat as a main dish, use just a little bit for flavor. Eating a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be all or nothing, and any increase in the amount of plant based materials will have an impact.

Dr. C. Joseph Bennett Jr. is a board-certified radiation oncologist. If you have any suggestions for topics, or have any questions, contact him at 522 N. Lecanto Highway, Lecanto, FL 34461, or email cjbennett@rboi.com.

(1) comment

Laura R Mckee

Great article. Too many people are overfed but undernourished. I'll just add, I think the biggest problem with meat (other than eating too much of it) is the way it's raised. Conventional beef is raised to get as fat as it can in as short a time as possible. Fattened up more on grains they weren't designed to eat standing in filthy stock yards for weeks on end. Among other things. (Like adding carbon monoxide to the package to keep it looking red.) I hate to say this, but I make my dogs food and there's some beef being sold in the grocery stores that my dog won't eat until he's really hungry. It's really sad to think people are eating it. (I do eat a 1/4 lb. hamburger about twice a month- but I buy grass fed and finished. which is said to be better.)

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