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Gastroenterologist Shares Benefits of Eating More Vegetarian


The American diet certainly needs some revision. Our culture is known for hot dogs, hamburgers, tacos and pizza, so it’s no wonder that 39.4 percent of Americans are obese (Source: CDC). Red meat is responsible for much of the folly of our diet. It is high in calories and fat and low in fiber. Researchers agree that a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains can have long-term, positive benefits in promoting good health and preventing disease.

According to Penny Turtel, M.D, F.A.C.G., F.A.C.P., of Ocean Surgical Pavilion in Oakhurst, New Jersey, it has been difficult to find good data on the benefits of diet in cancer prevention. However, JAMA recently published a well-designed study linking a vegetarian diet to a decrease in colorectal cancer rates. Researchers followed a large group of 77,659 Seventh Day Adventists from California and interviewed them prospectively about what they were eating. Diet was assessed using a food-frequency questionnaire at baseline, and four categories of vegetarian diets were identified: vegans (no meat, dairy or eggs); lacto-ovo vegetarian (allowing dairy and eggs); pesco-vegetarian (allowing fish); and semi-vegetarian (meat less than once per month). During 7.3 years of follow-up, 380 cases of colorectal cancer were diagnosed, and the data was analyzed according to diet group. Overall risk in vegetarians was lower (19 percent for colon cancer), and remarkably, 43 percent lower in the pesco-vegetarian group.

Dr. Turtel responded to this study by saying, “We are all trying to find ways to lower our risks for developing colon cancer and other diseases that are likely to cause morbidity and death. The pieces of the puzzle are finally starting to come together. Limiting red meat (not giving it up altogether), increasing unprocessed foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains) and exercise not only improves the risk of cardiovascular disease and colorectal cancer, but a recent study also links a similar diet to improved risk in Alzheimer’s disease.” The best news, Dr. Turtel says, is that some modifications in diet are low-risk interventions that have a likelihood of benefiting patients in many different ways.

The results of the Seventh Day Adventist study published in JAMA are consistent with statistics of lower rates of colorectal cancer among countries that eat what is known as the Mediterranean diet. This diet includes more fruits and vegetables, lean fish, seafood and many sources of monounsaturated fats such as olives, olive oil and nuts and grains. The Mediterranean diet also is lower in saturated fats and has a lower percentage of calories coming from meat. Americans could take a few pointers on how to make wiser selections on the amount and variety of foods we arrange on our dinner plates, and the Mediterranean diet could be a good place to start.

Dr. Turtel underscores that it is not imperative that everyone choose a vegetarian diet. Small changes over time can lead to better health. If you still prefer meat and potatoes, don’t despair. You can still enjoy a juicy steak once in a while, but moderation is one of the best mantras when it comes to diet. Dr. Turtel shares some practical ways that you can reduce your meat intake:

  1. Build your meals around plant-based foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds with small portions of animal-based protein.
  2. Be more sparing in consumption of meats and fats. Try to limit meat to 1 to 2 times per week.
  3. Choose lean cuts of meat and fish.
  4. When shopping, have a “whole foods” approach. Try to eat foods in as natural a state as possible.
  5. Instead of relying on supplements and vitamins, try to obtain your nutrients from your food. Your body will benefit the most when your vitamins and minerals come from food sources and not from a capsule or powder.
  6. Fish that is high in omega-3 fatty acids are the healthiest and offer the most benefit because of their anti-inflammatory properties and vitamin D content. Studies have shown that vitamin D may also play a role in colorectal cancer prevention. A few examples of fish that provide the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids are mackerel, lake trout, herring, blue fin tuna, salmon and sardines.
  7. Save your favorite meal of a great, juicy steak and potato for a special occasion. If you are eating a reasonable diet on most days, you can splurge on a meal of red meat and higher fat. Making these types of meals a rarity also helps you to savor and appreciate it more! 

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posted on May 15, 2015 in news