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Guest contributor: Professor Richard Béliveau, Ambassador for Colorectal Cancer Canada.

A remarkable new study has recently confirmed that the regular consumption of certain fruits and vegetables reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer and increases life expectancy.

Every organization dedicated to chronic disease prevention recommends that people consume a minimum of five servings (400 g) of fruits and vegetables a day to reduce the incidence of chronic disease and the associated mortality risk, whether from cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or cancer. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the inhabitants of industrialized countries consume well below the recommended number of servings, without counting the fact that the types of fruits and vegetables consumed are not very diverse and cannot fully provide the benefits associated with these foods.

Not created equal

To prevent chronic disease, it is not enough to simply increase the quantity of plant foods in one’s diet. It is also necessary to prioritize certain fruits and vegetables that provide strong preventive action.

The latter point is crucial, as we often make the mistake of thinking of fruits and vegetables as one uniform class of foods, whose positive action on the human body is limited to their vitamin, mineral, and fibre content.

This reductionist view is completely outdated, as scientific research in the last few years has revealed that plants are greatly complex, living organisms that produce an array of very reactive phytochemical molecules which affect a number of processes involved in disease development.

Essentially, these molecules are produced by plants in response to attacks from bacteria or insects, or as essential adaptations to variations in their environment: drought, flood, cold, or heat.

By sheer evolutionary coincidence, out of the tens of thousands of molecules produced by plants, a few of them affect the enzymes involved in the development of human diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease.

These molecules are found only in certain plants, and it is for this reason that specific fruits and vegetables are helpful in prevention.

Preventing deaths

This concept is very well illustrated by the results of a meta-analysis of the results obtained from 95 prospective studies carried out over the last few years on the association between fruit and vegetable consumption and the risk of chronic disease and premature death.

First, researchers confirmed that those who eat plant foods regularly have a lower risk of being affected by cardiovascular disease and cancer.

This protection depends directly on the amount ingested, with a maximum preventive effect observed for 10 servings (800 g) of fruits and vegetables. In other words, 5 servings is good, but 10 is even better!

Thus, those who consume 10 servings per day have a 24% decreased risk of developing heart disease (such as myocardial infarction), 33% decreased risk of stroke, and 13% decreased risk of developing cancer.

These protective effects have a major impact, as they translate into a 31% decrease in the risk of premature death.

Broadly speaking, the authors estimate that nearly eight million premature deaths worldwide could be prevented if everyone consumed 10 servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis.

Not all plant foods are associated with this decreased risk. By separately observing the effects of different classes of fruits and vegetables, the authors observed that the risk of cardiovascular disease was particularly diminished by certain fruits (apples, pears, citrus) and vegetables (leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables), while reduced cancer risk was observed particularly in those who consumed the greatest amount of cruciferous and yellow-green vegetables (carrots, celery, beans, spinach).

In other words, consuming in particular plant foods that contain the highest amounts of phytochemical molecules has a real impact on the risk of being affected by these diseases.

These results illustrate yet again how important it is to regularly consume fruits and vegetables to reduce the risk of chronic disease and improve the chances of living a healthy life. 

Head to the Get Your Veg Out and Recipes web-pages for more great meat-free tips and recipes to try this Meat Free Week.

The sixth annual Meat Free Week is taking place this 24-30 September 2018, find out further details and sign up for the challenge today. 

About the author: Richard Béliveau, Ph.D.

Richard Béliveau, Ph.D. in Biochemistry, is Scientific Director of the Chair in Prevention and Treatment of Cancer of the Université du Québec à Montréal.

He was Professor of Surgery and Physiology at Université de Montréal and held the Chair of Neurosurgery of the CHUM. He is an associate researcher at the Cancer Prevention Center in the Department of Oncology at McGill University and member of the Experimental Cancer Therapy Group at the Jewish General Hospital of Montreal. He is full Professor of Biochemistry at Université du Québec à Montréal and member of the Coalition Priorité Cancer au Québec.  He is the founder of Angiochem and Katana Biopharma, two biotech companies that develop new drugs targeting brain disorders and various types of cancer.

He has published more than 250 articles in world-class scientific and medical journals.  He also authored several best-selling books that have been translated into 28 languages across 37 countries, including “Foods that Fight Cancer”, “Cooking with Foods that Fight Cancer”, “Eating Well, Living Well”, “Death: the Scientific Facts”, “Samurai”, and “Preventing Cancer”.  He wrote more than 550 medical research columns in the Journal de Montréal. He was awarded the Public’s Choice Prize at the Salon du Livre de Montréal, he was named Person of the Year by L’Actualité magazine and Personality of the Province of Quebec by Au Québec newspaper. He was also named Emeritus alumnus of the Collège de Trois-Rivières, Université du Québec and Université Laval. He is Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry.