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The Easiest Way to Ward Off Cancer

Your new reason to love vegetarian cuisine.
By Emily Main
January 3, 2014

Looking for an easy New Year's resolution? Eat less meat. You might just stave off cancer, finds a new study in the journal Nutrients.

The author reviewed cancer rates in 157 countries and compared those with food consumption patterns for those countries collected by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization. He also looked at other potential cancer risk factors, including gross domestic product, life expectancy, lung cancer incidence (an index for smoking) and latitude, a marker of vitamin D exposure.

His conclusions: If you want to stave off the widest variety of cancers, stop smoking, eat fewer animal products and get more vitamin D. Countries with high rates of animal product consumption--meat, dairy, eggs, and fish--also saw high rates of 12 different types of cancer, including breast, kidney, liver, ovarian, prostate, testicular and thyroid cancers. Low solar UVB exposure, a marker for vitamin D absorption, was associated with six different types: bladder, brain, kidney, lung, melanoma, and Hodgkin’s lymphoma. And lung cancer incidence rates also correlated to 12 non-lung varieties of cancer.

Simply put, "eating a lot of animal products is not good for health," says William Grant, PhD, author of the study and president of the Sunlight Health Nutrition and Research Center, a nonprofit nutrition research institute. "They're a very important risk factor for many types of cancer and that's not that well recognized by most people."

There are a couple reasons he says that animal products might trigger cancer, one of which is something known as insulin-like growth factor 1, or IGF-1. That hormone exists in all animal products, even eggs and fish, and it causes animals--and people--to grow. That's why, Grant says, in places like Asia, older populations that were raised on a vegetable-heavy diet are generally shorter than younger populations that have adopted a more animal-heavy Western diet. And just as it makes people grow, IGF-1 makes tumors grow, too. (Fish contains vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, which counteract some of the damage caused by IGF-1, Grant says.)

It also seems that all animal products--organic or conventional--can raise your levels of IGF-1, which is increased by artificial hormones given to non-organic animals. Grant points to research conducted as far back as 1907 finding that northern Europeans with meat-heavy diets were still suffering higher cancer rates than Italians and Asians and their vegetarian-leaning cuisines. That was long before the introduction of artificial growth hormones.

Another factor that could contribute to animal products' cancer-promoting effects is iron, excess amounts of which can cause oxidative stress that creates cancerous free radical compounds in the body.

Interestingly, Grand adds that eating a healthy, vegetable-heavy diet can even counteract some of the damage caused by not getting enough vitamin D. His analysis revealed that in countries with low levels of UVB exposure, healthy diets were protective against at least 11 different types of cancer. At the same time, in countries close to the equator, a bad diet couldn't overcome the benefits of a lot of vitamin D.

"In the United States, you probably a get similar effect of a lot of vitamin D by eating less meat," he says.

Grant isn't advocating for a total vegan diet. "I eat meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, but I'm trying to eat more vegetables, more grains, more legumes," he says. "Just cut down on animal products." In some of the world's healthiest societies, animal products contribute a mere 12 to 15 percent of total calorie intake.

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