Cancer and a Plant Based Diet

Although a good deal has been written about the health benefits of plant based foods, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. It can be hard to know what a plant based diet even is. So, what is a plant based diet exactly? What does a plant based diet have to do with cancer?

A healthy, plant based diet maximizes consumption of nutrient-dense plant foods while minimizing processed foods, oils, and animal foods (including dairy products and eggs). So what does this mean?

On a plant based diet, individuals are encouraged to eat:

What is a plant based diet?

  • Plenty of vegetables (cooked or raw)
  • Fruits,
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Soybeans
  • Seeds and nuts (in small amounts).
  • Plant-based diets are generally low fat. This article explores whether plant-based foods are healthier and if they help reduce the risk of cancer.

On a plant based diet, it is encouraged to avoid: 

Foods to avoid on a plant based diet

  • Fatty foods and excess oils
  • Processed foods
  • Meat
  • Eggs
  • Dairy

Some theories suggest that eating a plant based diet is healthier than a typical diet, and can help reduce the risk of cancer. It has even been hypothesized that plant-based diets can cure cancer. So what exactly are the facts? 

Plant Based Diets & Cancer: Promising Research

Plant based diets and cancer: Promising Research

Extensive research has been conducted on the potential of plant-based diets to decrease the risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Nutrients found in plant-based foods, such as vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber have been shown to reduce the risk of several types of cancer.

  • A two-part long-term study published in 2018 on more than 182,000 women found those who ate more than 5.5 servings of fruits and vegetables each day had an 11% lower risk of breast cancer than those who ate 2.5 or fewer servings.
  • A large-scale 2013 study found vegetarian diets were associated with a significantly lower risk of gastrointestinal cancer, especially in those who followed a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (vegetarians who eat eggs and dairy).
  • A 2009 study found women with breast cancer who regularly consumed soy products had a 32% lower risk of breast cancer recurrence and a 29% decreased risk of death, compared with women who consumed little or no soy. Due to concerns about the estrogenic nature of soy products, women with a history of breast cancer should discuss eating soy with their oncologists.
  • A 2009 analysis of 14 previous studies found an increased intake of soy resulted in a 26% reduction in prostate cancer risk.

Plant Based Diets: Expert Opinion

Plant Based Diets: Expert Opinions

In addition to research, the following health or cancer-related organizations have issued guidelines on plant-based diets.

  • The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends two-thirds of one’s daily diet should be from plants and one-third from animal products. The AICR estimates diets high in fruit may prevent 36% percent of lung cancer cases in the U.S. not caused by tobacco.
  • The American Cancer Society suggests eating a healthy diet with an emphasis on plant foods, limiting processed and red meat, eating at least 2 ½ cups of vegetables daily, and choosing whole instead of refined grains.

Plant Based Foods List

What to eat on a plant based diet.

Any type of vegetable and fruit can be eaten, as long as you have no sensitivities or conditions that warrant avoiding specific foods. For example, some individuals with arthritis need to avoid night shades like tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and peppers. In addition to all fruits and vegetables, the following food groups are recommended:


Foods to Eat on a Plant Based Diet: Legumes

  • Black
  • Chickpea
  • Fava
  • Great Northern
  • Green or Wax
  • Kidney
  • Lentils
  • Lima
  • Peanuts
  • Pinto
  • Split Peas


Foods to Eat on a Plant Based Diet: Whole Grains

  • Brown Rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Whole Wheat Bread
  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Kasha
  • Millet
  • Faro
  • Quinoa


Foods to eat on a Plant Based Diet: Seeds and nuts

  • Almonds
  • Brazil nuts
  • Cashews
  • Chestnuts
  • Hazelnuts
  • Macadamias
  • Pecans
  • Pine nuts
  • Walnuts

Plant Based Diets versus the Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet vs Plant Based Diet

In both large population studies and randomized clinical trials, the Mediterranean diet has also shown promise in reducing the risk of colon, breast, and prostate cancer. The biggest difference between this diet and a plant based diet is that the Mediterranean diet includes fish, poultry, eggs, cheese, and yogurt a few times a week. Additionally, pork, beef, and sweets are eaten in considerable moderation.

Is a Plant-Based Diet Right for You?

Is a plant based diet right for you?

Whatever diet you choose, it’s important to keep in mind a plant-based diet is not an all-or-nothing or one-size-fits-all program. It is a way of life tailored to each individual that requires planning, treading labels, and discipline. For instance, all types of nuts and peanuts are calorically dense, which may or may not be an issue for you. Furthermore, weight loss is frequently a concern for cancer patients, so it is important to create a diet plan that gives enough nutrients and calories. Always consult with your physician before drastically changing your diet.


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