Will a vegan diet suppress cancer?

Donna Feldman
Nutrition & Dietetics
The relationship between diet and cancer risk is pretty murky. Research shows that cancer risk is lower for people who eat lots of plant-based foods, less meat, more fiber and more healthy fats. But is it the actual foods, or is it something else about a lifestyle that emphasizes plant-based foods and healthy fats?  

A vegan diet can have all these characteristics:
  • focus on plant foods
  • high fiber
  • high antioxidants
  • no meat or other animal-based foods
  • healthy vegetable-based fats
  • promote weight loss
So if you follow a vegan diet like that, your cancer risk might be lower, based on statistics. Unfortunately, statistics from a large study group mean nothing for an individual person. You might follow an excellent vegan diet, but still have cancer due to other factors, such as genetics, lifestyle or environment. For example, research shows that breast cancer patients who are overweight or obese have a much higher risk for cancer recurrence than normal weight women. So if you are obese, eating a vegan diet might not lower your risk.

But you might benefit from another good effect of vegan diets: weight loss. Many people who go vegan end up losing weight. One possible reason is that plant-based foods are very filling, due to their naturally high water and fiber content. Calorie intake is reduced. So the vegan diet may end up helping reduce cancer risk by causing weight loss.

There's one catch: you can be a vegan and never touch a vegetable. An unhealthy and unbalanced vegan diet isn't likely to be any healthier than an unbalanced meat diet. Unfortunately it's easy to eat a vegan diet that's limited to veggie burgers on a bun, meal bars, sweets, soft drinks and snack foods. That's not a great approach. If you want to take advantage of the health benefits of plant-based vegan diets, including possible reduction of cancer risk, you need to focus on vegetables, grains, legumes, fruit and nuts, along with soy-based milk or yogurt.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.