Vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets: what they mean for cancer and health

This article is provided by Brittany Southall, graduate student in medical nutrition.

Vegetarian, vegan and plant-based diets are often touted as being healthy. But can any of these diets prevent or reduce your risk of cancer?

Can a vegan diet prevent cancer?

A vegan diet avoids all foods of animal origin, including meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy products. The American Institute for Cancer Research states that there is insufficient evidence that a vegan diet is more effective in reducing your risk of cancer than a vegetarian or plant-based diet. In fact, research shows that any diet focused primarily on nutrient-dense plant foods provides excellent benefits. Therefore, a diet of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and other plant foods can help reduce the risk of many cancers.

What is a vegan diet?

A plant-based diet does not mean that you never eat animal foods. Instead, you choose to eat more plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes, and beans. The plant-based diet adds more vitamins, minerals and fiber to the typical American diet. It is also beneficial for heart health and may reduce your risk of other chronic diseases.

Tips for a successful plant-based diet

Eating a wide variety of plant foods provides the nutrients we need to support health and recovery. The AICR recommends eating a minimum of 3 1/2 to 5 cups of vegetables and fruit each day for overall good health and to reduce your risk of cancer.

Target these portions: Fill at least two-thirds (or more) of your plate with plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Choose a colorful variety of vegetables and fruits to get the most nutrients. Keep animal protein (meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, and dairy) to one-third or less of your plate.

Look to plants for protein: Replace animal protein with plant protein wherever you can. For example, add beans to a burrito or soup or hemp seeds to a salad or smoothie. Try replacing a plant-based protein in one or two meals a day as you work toward your plant-based dietary goals.

Plant-based protein sources to try:

  • Beans
  • Lentils and peas
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Hemp or chia seeds
  • Tofu and tempeh
  • Soy milk
  • Edamame

Slow and steady: Gradually work to eat more plant-based foods. You don’t have to follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet to reduce your risk of cancer. The key to improving your overall health and reducing your risk of cancer is simply to focus on eating more plants.

Proven Strategies to Reduce Cancer Risk

The Cancer Risk and Prevention Clinic can assess your cancer risk and offer you a personalized cancer prevention plan. Call 402.559.5600 to schedule an appointment.

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