Often a diagnosis of cancer will cause individuals to rethink their current diet and health practices. Many often assume that they have to give up meat or convert to a vegetarian or vegan diet as part of taking on a cancer diet. While these diets have many health benefits, they are not required for overall cancer prevention.
The transition to eating a vegetarian diet is best in slow progressions, rather than an overnight switch. The easiest way people cut meat products out of their regular diets is by cutting them out one at a time, or at least one group at a time. You might simply begin by avoiding red meats. This way you can still eat chicken and fish in order to taste similar flavors, while also easily meeting your protein requirements. Once this slightly modified diet becomes ritualistic for you, then you can continue by eliminating another animal product or group. Everyone has different reasons for becoming a vegetarian so take it at your own pace so that you can confidently and consciously make the decision to eliminate foods. This will help tremendously when you are feeling those cravings of the missing meat products.
We should also note that it is very important to consult your doctor before during and after your transition to a vegetarian diet. Despite all of the information we read, it is still very easy to become deficient in a simple nutrient and throw off our entire body. Things like B12, iron, and creatinine all need to be monitored as your begin to eliminate and replace foods in your everyday nutrition.
Health Benefits of Being Vegetarian
Vegans and vegetarians typically have lower intakes of saturated fat, cholesterol, and processed foods which are also known to have a negative impact on our health. Those who follow vegan or vegetarian diets may find it easier to maintain a healthy weight and control calories, and may have lower risks of certain cancers.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, consuming a plant-based diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds can, in fact, reduce our overall risk of cancer. A plant-based diet should aim to fill at least two-thirds of your plate with these plant foods for optimal cancer-fighting value and one-third or less of your plate from animal protein. Plant-based diets provide a wealth of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients which help to strengthen the immune system and fight disease. They are also rich in dietary fiber to help promote digestive health [i] [ii] [iii].
Do Vegetarians Eat Chicken?
A vegetarian is someone who avoids eating all meat and animal flesh; a lacto-ovo vegetarian will eat eggs and milk products; a pescatarian will also eat fish. Vegans do not consume any foods that come from an animal – including eggs, dairy, milk, and foods made with animal byproducts.
Staying Vegan or Vegetarian During Cancer Treatment
For those who are already vegan or vegetarian, there is no need to add meat after a diagnosis of cancer. These diets can be safely continued with the guidance of a Registered Dietitian. Vegetarians and vegans may need to be more aware of including plant proteins to meet increased nutritional needs of cancer treatment. Additional vitamin and mineral supplementation may also be necessary. Vegans in particular, usually require additional supplementation with vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and calcium which may be even more important during and after treatment in order to prevent deficiencies.
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How to Become a Vegetarian
What are some easy ways that you can start to reap the benefits of plant foods without having to necessarily convert to vegan or vegetarianism? Here are seven easy steps:
- Adopt “Meatless Mondays” – Include at least one day per week with a vegetarian meal like vegetable chili; ratatouille, vegetable lasagna, pasta primavera, tofu stir fry, quinoa salad, veggie burgers, black bean stew, bean or vegetable burritos just to name a few!
- Fill your plate with veggies – As recommended by the AICR, aim to fill your plate with 2/3 or more plant foods. Read more about this concept in the New American Plate
- Eat the rainbow – Aim to include the colors of the rainbow each day. For example red (tomato), orange (oranges), yellow (peppers), green (peas), blue (blueberries), and purple (purple potato or carrot).
- Eat less meat – Remember meals are not mean to be centered around meat! Instead, think of meat as your side dish. The average individual over age 19 only needs between 5-6 oz of meat or meat equivalents each day. Speak with your Registered Dietitian to discuss your individual needs.
- Choose more plant proteins – Did you know that ½ an ounce of nuts (12 almonds, 24 pistachios, 7 walnut halves), ½ an ounce of seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, squash hulled and roasted), or 1 Tbsp of peanut butter is equivalent to 1 oz of protein? ¼ cup of cooked beans, peas or baked beans is also equivalent to 1 oz of protein foods. For those who like tofu, ¼ cup (2 oz) tofu, 1 oz tempeh, or 2 Tbsp hummus is equivalent to 1 oz protein. As you can see, these foods can easily replace the protein provided by their meat counterparts!
- Include more fish – Fish is naturally lower in fat and heart healthy, especially fish like salmon, tuna, and mackerel which are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Be sure to make safe choices when choosing fish. Check out the Environmental Defense Fund’s Safe Seafood Selector for fish choices that are good for you and the ocean.
- Try a new food each week, or month – Have you ever tried quinoa, millet or bulgur? What about Japanese eggplant? So many yummy plant foods are waiting for you to try them. If you enjoy cooking, you can even treat yourself with a new cookbook or join an online community that can inspire you with some new recipes! Bon Appetit!