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Eating too much meat has long been associated with increased cancer risk.

Eating a vegetarian or vegan diet can get a little contentious. One side might argue that meat is bad for your heart, cholesterol levels and other health markers. Those on the other side of the argument might argue that vegan and vegetarian diets are short on nutrients.

Vegetarian diets exclude meat, poultry and fish. Vegan diets exclude all animal products including eggs, cheese and honey.

Can these diets help lower your cancer risk? We spoke to Lindsey Wohlford, MD Anderson Cancer Center employee dietitian. Here’s what she had to say.

Eating too much meat has been linked to cancer. Can you tell us more about that?

Eating too much meat - especially too much processed meat - can increase your risk for certain types of cancers, including colon cancer and esophageal cancer.

Processed meats like deli meat, bacon and hot dogs contain chemical preservatives that can increase your cancer risk. Consuming red meat like beef, lamb or pork increases cancer risk as well.

In addition, how you cook your meat may be affecting your cancer risk. Eating meat cooked at high temperatures using methods like barbecuing and pan-frying can increase your risk of developing kidney cancer.  

We recommend eating no more than 18 ounces of cooked meat per week. That’s about the size of three decks of card or four tennis balls. And when choosing protein, look for these healthier options:

  • Plant proteins (beans, legumes and soy)

  • Fish

  • Chicken

  • Turkey

  • Low-fat dairy foods

  • Eggs

Can becoming vegetarian or vegan help lower your cancer risk?

While no diet choice will guarantee that you won’t develop cancer, cutting meat can help you lower your cancer risk.

The American Institute for Cancer Research promotes a plant-based diet. Two-thirds or more of your plate should be plant-based foods. 

That’s in part because plant-based foods contain phytochemicals, the nutrients that your immune system needs to fight off diseases like cancer. Plant-based foods also contain more fiber, which can help lower your cancer risk. Fiber not only keeps you feeling full longer, but it helps you lower your cholesterol, stabilize your blood sugar levels and manage your bowels. Meat just doesn’t do that.

Do vegetarians and vegans miss out on important nutrients?

Animal products do contain healthy nutrients like protein, vitamin B12, vitamin B6 and iron. Someone eating vegan or vegetarian could be missing these important elements, but they are fairly easy to get from certain plant foods. Vegetarians might need to put in a little more effort to ensure that they get these nutrients. Vegans face an even bigger challenge in eating a balanced diet because their food choices are more restricted. It is not impossible to achieve a balanced vegetarian or vegan diet, but it does require some planning. A registered dietitian can help you make a plan.

Vegetarians and vegans should also make sure they’re not replacing meat with processed or unhealthy foods. Simply cutting meat or animal products doesn’t necessarily make your diet healthy.

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