Could eating meat raise your risk of cancer?

Meat lovers beware: diets high in animal products may heighten the threat of cancer, according to new research published in the journal Nutrients.

William B. Grant, PhD, an epidemiologist and founder of the non-profit organization Sunlight, Nutrition and Health Research Center (SUNARC), looked at data from 157 countries to explore links between environment, behavior, and different types of cancer.

He found that twelve types of cancer were more common in countries where people ate a lot of animal products. In particular, diets laden with meat, fish, eggs, and dairy were strongly correlated with increased rates of breast, uterine, kidney, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate, testicular, thyroid, and multiple myeloma cancers.

“Westernized” diets may increase risk

Grant collected and analyzed high-quality data about cancer incidence and dietary patterns from GLOBOCAN, a database run by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

When it came to animal products and cancer risk, Grant found that dietary patterns from 1990 had the greatest impact on cancer incidence in 2008. This finding supports previous research, which has found a time lag of 10 to 30 years between changes in national diet and cancer rates. For example, in Japan dietary habits became “westernized” in the second half of the twentieth-century, when citizens ate less fibre and more fats, oils, and animal products than before; fifteen to 30 years later, rates of breast cancer and colon cancer mortality rose.

Grant speculates that increased production of insulin, insulin-like growth factor 1, and sex hormones might be responsible for the link between animal products consumption and likelihood of cancer. Iron in meat might also heighten the risk of cancer by contributing to increased production of free radicals and increased oxidative stress and DNA damage. In other words, although animal products may help the body grow, they can sometimes feed tumors too.

The study also drew links between multiple types of cancer and other risk factors, such as smoking, drinking, and consuming sweeteners and animal fats.

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Vegetarianism might ward off illness

For over a hundred years, investigators have recognized meat consumption as a possible risk factor for cancer. A study reported in 1907 found that members of ethnic communities in Chicago that ate a lot of meat experienced higher rates of cancer mortality than pasta-preferring Italians and rice-favoring Chinese.

In contrast, studies suggest that vegetarian diets may help ward off cancer and other ailments. For example:

  • Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians were 12% less likely to die from any cause over an average follow-up period of almost six years in a new study of more than 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists. Men in particular may benefit from forgoing meat.
  • The threat of hospitalization or death from heart disease was 32% lower for vegetarians than people who ate meat and fish in new research conducted among approximately 45,000 volunteers from England and Scotland. Vegetarian participants also tended to have lower body mass indices (BMI) and fewer cases of diabetes.
  • Vegetarians may be a third less prone to diverticular disease, according to findings published by the British Medical Journal. This common bowel disorder can cause abdominal cramps, bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea, and even death. It might arise from lack of dietary fibre

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Eating more plant-based foods is easy

To lower your odds of cancer, fill your plate with plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (e.g., beans, lentils). According to the American Institute for Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund, you should also limit your consumption of red meat (e.g., beef, lamb, pork) and avoid processed meats (e.g. bacon, deli meats, hot dogs).

Even committed carnivores can adopt a more vegetable-centric diet by following these simple steps:

  • Embrace Meatless Mondays. Go vegetarian or vegan for one day a week or more. Or commit to meatless breakfasts and lunches, while indulging your appetite for animals at dinner.
  • Get curious with cuisines. Explore different culinary traditions from around the world to discover delicious and nutritious plant-based entrées. From the beans and rice of Brazil, to the pasta e fagioli of Italy, to the braised tofu of China, there’s a world of flavor to enjoy.
  • Pick proteins wisely. With the exceptions of soy and quinoa, few plant-based foods provide all essential amino acids. Combine any two of the following for a complete protein package: legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds.

Some vital nutrients are hard to get from a vegetarian or vegan diet. If you decide to cut animal products from your meals, speak with your doctor to learn if vitamin B-12 or other supplements are right for you.

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