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

Older couple eating a meal outside

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

Vegetarian, vegan and plant-based diets are often promoted as being good for your health. 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 that come from animals, including meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy. The American Institute for Cancer Research states there is not enough evidence that a vegan diet is better at reducing your cancer risk than vegetarian or plant-based eating. In fact, research shows that any diet with a primary focus on nutrient-rich plant foods offers excellent benefits. Therefore, a diet filled with a variety of various vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and other plant foods may help lower the risk for many cancers.

What is a plant-based diet?

A plant-based diet doesn’t mean you never eat food from animal sources. Instead, you’re choosing to eat more foods from plant sources, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, whole grains, legumes and beans. Plant-based eating adds more vitamins, minerals and fiber to the typical American diet. It also benefits heart health and may reduce your risk of other chronic diseases.

Tips for achieving a 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 fruits each day for overall good health and to lower your cancer risk.

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 proteins (meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs and dairy) to one-third or less of your plate.

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

Plant 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 your way to eating 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 cancer risk 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 plan to prevent cancer. Call 402.559.5600 to schedule an appointment.