We know a daily dose of vegetables is good for your health, but what about a full vegetarian diet? And, do vegetarian diets reduce cancer risk?

The Fix posed these questions to contributor Maria Petzel, a senior clinical dietitian at MD Anderson Cancer Center and a member of the Scientific and Medical Advisory Board at the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

“There is an overwhelming body of evidence that following a plant-based diet, made up of mostly vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds can reduce the risk of getting cancer,” Petzel said.

“However, the evidence is less clear that a vegetarian or vegan diet further reduces risk of cancer over a good plant-based diet and maintaining a healthy weight.”

Petzel cautioned that having the right balance of nutrients is key in making sure you are getting everything you need in a vegetarian diet.

“Vegetarian does not inherently mean healthy. A poorly planned vegetarian – especially vegan – diet can be deficient in essential nutrients such as vitamins B12, B6 and D, as well as iron, calcium and zinc.

“Many beverages and foods that count as vegetarian contain large amounts of refined sugar.”

(Think soda, flavored milk, flavored yogurt and other foods that may be low in fiber – like white bread, rice and pasta).

“Other vegetarian foods may be high in sodium, or cooked in less desirable fats including butter, vegetable shortening, corn oil or vegetable oil. A bean and cheese burrito from a fast food restaurant can have as much sodium and saturated fat as its meat-containing counterpart.”

Bottom line: The jury is still out about vegetarian diets as it relates to lowering cancer risk. Petzel recommends following a plant-based diet as guided by the AICR that includes some vegetarian meals. If you wish to fully follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, seek advice from a registered dietitian to ensure you are getting all of your nutrition needs met.

If you’re a pancreatic cancer patient and have questions about healthy eating, or to get a copy of our Diet and Nutrition Booklet, please call Patient Central at 877-573-9971 to speak with a Patient Central Associate.

Pancreatic cancer patients and caregivers can access comprehensive disease information, reviewed and approved by renowned leaders in the field, including Petzel, by calling the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network’s one-on-one Patient Central support service at 877-573-9971 or emailing patientcentral@pancan.org.