Much has been made of the health effects of vegetarian diets. Various studies have confirmed that vegetarians enjoy more robust health, especially when it comes to cancer prevention. Researchers have cited many reasons why and I will share with you their diet recommendations as well as their cautioning against being strict vegetarians.
What is a Vegetarian?
One thing that is seldom discussed is what a vegetarian is. This becomes important when understanding what research says. There may be a popular idea out there that envisions a vegetarian as someone who only eats vegetables. This is not always the case.
There are laco-vegetarians who consume dairy products, ovo-vegetarians who eat eggs and a combination of the two. Then there are strict vegetarians and vegans who only consume raw foods. There is also a large class of people who call themselves vegetarians, but consume very little vegetables, they mostly eat refined carbohydrates and survive off pasta and rice. This last group would not enjoy any health benefits of being vegetarians.
Many of the health benefits stem from an overall healthy lifestyle. Michael Pollen in his book, An Omnivore’s Dilemma, points out that when it comes to diet, vegetarians are ahead of most of us because they are conscious of what they are putting into their mouths. They ask if what they are eating is healthy before they buy it. Much of the research supports Pollen’s statement.
Vegetarians must consume supplements in order to avoid vitamin deficiency and the complications associated with such deficiencies. Vitamin B-12 and the long chain Omega-3 fatty acids being the most notable deficiencies, the best source being found in meat. Studies also indicate that when a vegetarian does become ill, say with cancer, their survival rate is much lower than an omnivore’s (eats meat and vegetables). It was found that lacto-vegetarians enjoy better health than vegans (Weaver). Also, as Muslims we must also be careful not to make what Allah made halal into something haram.
Fiber, Phytonutrients and Cancer
People do not eat enough vegetables, period. What these studies reveal is not so much that everyone should be the vegetarian lifestyle, but that we all should be consuming more fruits and vegetables. India, which is known for its vegetarian lifestyle is not cancer free and amazingly it has some of highest rates of heart disease in the world. (Sinha, et al.)
When it comes to cancer, it is fiber and the phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that offer up prevention against this disease. Vegetarians eat more vegetables, so they experience more of the benefits than other populations. Traditional societies in Africa once upon a time consumed up to 65 grams of fiber a day and were free of many diseases. Today, as a nutritionist, I am happy if I can get someone to consume 25-35 grams a day. Fiber helps clean out the body by binding to toxins and waste products on their way out of the body. This can be of great assistance in removing excess hormones, environmental contaminants, and metabolic waste.
Phytonutrients found in fruits and vegetables are some of the most potent anti-cancer substances (two of which are not readily available in vegetables, supporting the omnivore diet.)
Nutrients that offer the greatest protection are (Divisi et al.):
– Folic acid
– Vitamin B12 (found in meat)
– Vitamin D (found in meat)
– Carotenes (a-carotene, B-carotene, lycopene, lutine, cryptoxanthin)
Greens for the Masses
This is my version of Rebecca Katz’s recipe in her wonderful
cookbook One Bite at a Time.
1-3 teaspoons coconut oil, ghee or butter
Half an onion, sliced thin
1 bunch kale, Swiss chard, collards or any other leafy green
1 bunch spinach
3-4 tablespoons broth
1-2 tablespoon nuts (optional).
Salt to taste
Pre-heat a large frying pan then add your oil of choice. Do not be
afraid of these healthy fats. It is very rare to have the genetic
mutation that causes cholesterol to build up excessively.
Caramelize the onions on low for about 20 minutes. Add the
greens, spinach and broth. Cover and let steam for 15 minutes.
Add salt to taste. Lastly add nuts and dried fruits.
As we go through our daily lives, we are exposed to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance and mutagens (substances that can alter cells) all the time. The more fruits and vegetables we eat gives our bodies ways to stop those effects.
The more of these nutrients we have in our bodies, the more “damage” we can sustain. Just breathing causes oxidation. Today our food supply is awash with rancid oils that are so damaging to cells and are carcinogenic.
Antioxidants are found abundantly in dark berries, red grapes, deep sea fatty fish, and dark leafy greens. The best sources of vitamin D are cold water fish, cod liver oil, butter and egg yolks. The best form of B-12 is found in liver and other organ meats, while seaweed is a rich source of chlorophyll. The carotenes are found in brightly colored vegetables (yellow and orange). Beans, green leafy vegetables like spinach, collards and kale are rich sources of folic acid. Wheat germ, Brazil nuts and red Swiss chard are good sources of selenium.
I want to mention soy here. There have been various studies claiming that soy prevents cancer, however, according to a 2004 study shows that the health benefits seem only to apply to the traditional Japanese condiments or fermented soy products. Tofu and soy milk, due to the processing they undergo, are not healthful foods. (Allred, et al.)
A study conducted in 2003 found that eating fruit in childhood had a long term protective effect against cancer – so moms, put out a big bowl of fruit for the children. (Maynard, et al.)
There are some foods, when eaten in excess, were found to contribute to cancer (Key, et al). These foods are:
- Preserved meat
– High amounts of saturated fats
– High amounts of red meat
– High amounts of Omega 6 oils
– Dry/salt preserved fish
– Very hot drinks
Preserved meats, like sandwich meat, contain many substances that are toxins. If prepared at home, this is not an issue. Studies do not specify what types of saturated fats were used in the study and indicate that there is no “definitive connection” between fat intake and cancer. Rancid fats and damaged fats like corn, canola, hydrogenated oils and heated olive oil contribute to cancer.
People eat too much meat. Eating meat at every meal and every day is not moderation. Study after study has shown that over consuming meat is hazardous to one’s health, especially when that meat is full of antibiotics and pumped full with growth hormones.
Personally, I eat meat 1-2 times a week, if that much. Interestingly, researchers also found that drinking very hot beverages is associated with a high risk of cancer of the esophagus which is very prevalent in India.
Should I Use Dietary Supplements?
A 2006 study found that probiotics and digestive enzymes are well worth taking as a dietary measure to prevent cancer (Divisi, et al.). In the world that we live in dietary supplementation are a good preventative and health building measure.
Genetics vs. environment and nature vs. nurture are the wild cards in cancer prevention. Some people are more susceptible to cancer than others. Then there are the environmental contaminants that are mutagens and carcinogens that can cause cancer in people with no known genetic propensity for cancer.
In either case, supplementation of antioxidants and a good multivitamin can help in eliminating both wild cards. More importantly, remember to eat at least 4 servings of fruits and 6 servings of vegetables a day.
For further information, The World’s Healthiest Foods (www.whfoods.com) is a good source for information on the best foods to eat to prevent disease.
This article is from Science’s archive, originally published on an earlier date.
- Allred, Clinton D, Kimberly F. Allred, Young H. Ju, Tracy S. Goeppinger, Daniel R. Doerge
and William G. Helferich. “ Soy processing influences growth of estrogen-dependent
breast cancer tumors.” (Carcinogenesis 2004 25(9):1649-1657).
- Craig, Winston J. “ Health effects of vegan diets.” (Am J Clin Nutr 2009 89: 1627S-1633S).
- Divisi, Duilio Sergio Di Tommaso, Salvatore Salvemini, Margherita Garramone, Roberto
Crisci. “ Diet and cancer” (ACTA BIOMED 2006; 77; 118-123.)
- Key, Timothy J, Arthur Schatzkin, Walter C Willett, Naomi E Allen, Elizabeth A Spencer and Ruth C Travis. “Diet, nutrition and the prevention of cancer.” ( Public Health Nutrition 2004 7(1A), 187–200).
- Lampe, Johanna W. “Interindividual differences in response to plant-based diets: implications or cancer risk.” (Am J Clin Nutr 2009 89: 1553S-1557S).
- Maynard, M, D Gunnell, P Emmett, S Frankel and G Davey Smith. “ Fruit, vegetables, and antioxidants in childhood and risk of adult cancer: the Boyd Orr cohort.” (Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 2003;57:218-225).
7. Pollen, Michael. . (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Penguin Press.
- Sinha R, Anderson DE, McDonald SS, Greenwald P.” Cancer Risk and Diet in India.”(J Postgraduate M 2003 49(3) 222-228)
- Weaver, Connie M. “Should dairy be recommended as part of a healthy vegetarian diet?” (Am
J Clin Nutr 2009 89: 1634S-1637S).