Is a plant-based diet cancer protective?

Cancer rates are soaring worldwide. Cancer has now overtaken heart disease as the leading cause of death in Canada (1). The “War on Cancer”, commenced by the Nixon administration in 1971, has been a catastrophic failure. There are many hundreds of cancer charities worldwide, and we are told in TV advertisements by Cancer Research UK, that if we just wear pink in “Race for Life” and do more fundraising for them, we will “beat cancer sooner”. Will we? That, of course, remains a possibility. But what if the answer were much more straightforward? What if it were true that just by changing what we eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner could dramatically improve our chances of avoiding this most feared of diseases, and could even allow us to reverse the pathology and heal ourselves?

The role of diet as a potential causative factor in the development of cancer is now understood by many, and is widely researched. However, and as I state in my CD The Role of Nutrition in Cancer Treatment, there is no one “ultimate cause” of cancer (although folic acid deficiency, and depriving cells of oxygen, have both been stated by some researchers to be “ultimate causes”).

Cancer is, no doubt, a multifactorial disease – i.e. many factors coming together to stimulate the abnormal growth of cells. Poor diet, lack of adequate antioxidant intake, low vitamin D status, lack of exercise, stress, high sugar consumption, high fat intake, exposure to environmental chemicals and pollutants, smoking, exposure to ionising radiation, low self-esteem, genetic predisposition; all these and more have been demonstrated over time to be involved in that most complex of processes that ultimately manifests as a tumour. Scientists from Manchester University recently performed a comprehensive examination of hundreds of mummified bodies from ancient Egypt and beyond. Their conclusion, published in a 2010 issue of Nature Reviews Cancer was that nearly all cancer is a modern, human-made disease caused by poor diet and pollution.

As you can imagine, I am frequently asked if a plant-based diet is really the most health-giving. I am covering this huge subject (in as much detail as I can in a 45-minute slot!) at Bristol VegFest on 22nd May, so do join me if you’re free. For now, let’s have a look at the evidence which supports the move from beef to broccoli; from pork to pine nuts, from milk to mung beans and from eggs to eggplant. The dietary recommendations on the websites of several cancer charities do not appear to support such a radical shift. Are they missing a trick?

Many studies are now making the connection between meat intake and the incidence of many cancers. These studies are relevant in that they are performed on humans; animal models are not always accurate representations of what will happen in the human body. T. Colin Campbell summarised his epic “The China Study” thus:

“Without any doubt, those who consumed the most animal products had the highest incidence of degenerative disease. Those who consumed the least animal products had the least degenerative disease and were the healthiest.” Degenerative disease here incorporates not just cancer but also heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis and other “Western” diseases. Campbell has his critics of course, as all researchers do, but he’s not the only one coming to these conclusions.

Red meat and processed meat consumption is a strong correlator for colon cancer (2, 3, 4), and red meat is a causal factor for oesophageal and liver cancer (4). The cooking method of meat also seems to have an impact on both the initial cause, and subsequent recurrence, of malignant bowel cancers (5). High cooking temperatures in grilling and frying of meat increases carcinogenic compounds in the meat such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)(6).

But what about other cancers? For sure, bowel cancer is unpleasant and has a nasty habit of recurring despite radical surgery and intensive chemo. And there were over 40,000 new cases of it in the UK in 2013 alone, representing 12% of all diagnosed cancers (source – Cancer Research UK).

Hormonal cancers (breast and ovarian in women, prostate and testicular in men) have a strong link to dietary fat and animal protein intake. As I state in my CD The Real Truth about Food, a high consumption of dairy products increases the risk of prostate cancer, and makes metastasis (spread to other parts of the body), more likely. In one study, milk was most closely correlated with the incidence of prostate cancer, followed by meat and coffee (7). As for testicular cancer, cheese was most closely correlated with incidence in the 20-39 age group, followed by animal fat and milk (7). Another study in the Netherlands indicated that the greatest risk for prostate cancer was posed by consumption of cured meat and milk products (8).

Amongst women, breast cancer is probably the most feared of all cancers. The emotional effects of the disease can be massive, and some authors actually describe breast cancer as primarily an emotional disease (9). Meat and fish consumption is linked to a higher incidence of breast cancer (10) as is the consumption of a diet high in fat, notably animal fat (11).

Similar findings and correlations between animal protein and animal fat intake exist for many other cancers, including pancreatic, kidney, lung, bladder, and leukaemia. As I explain in my CD The Role of Nutrition in Cancer Treatment, one Swedish study indicated that there was a zero recurrence rate of breast cancer when a plant-based diet was adopted, in contrast to a 37% recurrence rate on a “standard” diet.

As we all know however, correlation does not equal causation. So why don’t we look at whether a plant-based diet really does reduce the incidence of cancer. Whilst there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people who have reversed catastrophic disease, including cancer, via sprouting, juicing, eating raw and living foods etc, there are other factors involved aside from diet alone. Whilst I was studying at Hippocrates in Florida, where for decades people have successfully been able to reverse all manner of cancer processes, I was informed that an outstanding diet alone is often not enough. This is why all guests at Hippocrates also receive psychotherapy, detoxification sessions, exercise programs and many other supportive therapies. A healing diet is only one ingredient in the recipe for success. After all, the body and mind are intrinsically linked, and this may help to explain why some people have gone into spontaneous remission from cancers even when the diet was not optimal. Many such individuals have an incredible mindset of creating wellness, and this, together with a large supportive network, can often get them through.

The Seventh Day Adventist population in California is notable and has been the subject of many studies. These people have close community links, an active spiritual life and many have a plant-based diet. Compared with the “average” Californian, the Adventists who eat a standard diet have a 36% lower incidence of heart disease, and a lower all-cause mortality rate than Californians who likewise eat a standard diet. The Adventists’ cancer incidence is also lower. What is most interesting however is the effect on the reduction in the incidence of degenerative disease, including cancer, when a plant-based diet is adopted. According to the Adventists study, a vegan diet appears to be protective against all types of cancer; more so than a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet. Vegan Adventist women also have a lower incidence of hormonal cancers (breast, ovary, uterine) than any other dietary group. Another benefit for the vegan Adventist women is that they weigh on average 39 lbs less than their meat-eating counterparts. Since obesity is a risk factor for many diseases, including cancer, the advantages of a plant-based diet seem too significant to ignore.

Sadly, corporate interest often dictates the information we are given, and vested interest frequently overtakes health. It has been estimated that if subsidies on the production of meat and dairy products were eliminated, and these animal derivatives were actually sold at their true price, we could potentially prevent 75% of all degenerative disease worldwide within 3 years (1). Regrettably, when looking at dietary guidelines from governments and medical charities for numerous degenerative diseases, the over-riding message seems to be that of not scaring people too much; being “moderate”; and perhaps staying within the dietary comfort zone that might have allowed the disease to manifest in the first place.

We are told to “cut down” rather than “cut out”. We are told to “reduce” rather than “eliminate”. We are told that we need a balanced diet, but are not actually informed what the most health-giving diet is. It took a very long time for governments and health bodies to tell people that, to reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease, they should not smoke at all. Let us hope that this talk of dietary moderation does not take as long to disappear from the vocabulary of our advisers. For my personal health, when it comes to avoiding degenerative diseases including cancer, I’d rather be a radical plant-eater.


  1. The Real Truth About Health Conference, New York 2014.
  2. Wang, J et al. Carcinogen metabolism genes, red meat and poultry intake, and colorectal cancer risk. Int J Cancer, 2012 Apr 15; 130(8): 1898-907.
  3. Zur Hausen H. Red meat consumption and cancer: reasons to suspect involvement of bovine infectious factors in colorectal cancer. Int J Cancer, 2012 Jun 1; 130(11): 2475-83.
  4. Cross AJ, Leitzmann MF et al. A prospective study of red and processed meat intake in relation to cancer risk. PLoS Med, 2007 Dec 4(12):e325
  5. Martinez ME, Jacobs ET et al. Meat intake, preparation methods, mutagens and colorectal adenoma recurrence. Carcinogenesis, 2007 Sep; 28(9):2019-27.
  6. Cross AJ, Sinha R. Meat-related mutagens/carcinogens in the etiology of colorectal cancer. Environ Mol Mutagen. 2004;44(1):44-55.
  7. Li XM et al. The effects of oestrogen-like products in milk on prostate and testes (Chinese). 2003 Jun;9(3):186-90.
  8. Schuurman AG et al. Animal products, calcium and protein and prostate cancer risk in The Netherlands Cohort Study. Br J Cancer. 1999 Jun;80(7):1107-13.
  9. The Real Truth About Health Conference, New York 2014.
  10. Bao PP et al. Fruit, vegetable and animal food intake and breast cancer risk by hormone receptor status. Nutr Cancer, 2012 Aug;64(6):806-19.
  11. Schulz M et al. Identification of a dietary pattern characterized by high-fat food choices associated with increased risk of breast cancer: the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) – Potsdam Study. Br J Nutr, 2008 Nov;100(5)942-6.




About Max Tuck

Hippocrates Health Educator. Long term living foods vegan. Athlete, lecturer, author of four books (with the 5th coming soon) and firm advocate of healthy living.
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4 Responses to Is a plant-based diet cancer protective?

  1. Pingback: Is a plant-based diet cancer protective? | The Raw Food Scientist

  2. Ann says:

    Great article, Max! But in fact, the cause of cancer has been established. Emotion is the main factor, primarily anger. And look at “The China Study” for more detail. Diet is key! Animal protein has been proven, beyond a shadow of a doubt, to cause cancer in humans. We are herbivores, as you know, and eating the flesh and milk of other animals is carcinogenic.
    Thanks, and keep up the good work!

    • Max Tuck says:

      Thanks Ann for your valuable comments. I have heard many reports on the contribution of anger to some cancer diagnoses, and certainly find this angle very interesting; sadly it is never discussed in the mainstream, so thank you for bringing it up here. What a revelation for all of us if it were more widely known! I am unsure of how the anger aspect can be studied precisely, and do not currently know of any published scientific papers on this subject. It just gives weight to the idea that there is no one “real” cause of cancer, and that we must look to all aspects of our lifestyle, rather than diet alone, or emotional state on its own. When we upgrade in every area of our lives, positive outcomes must surely follow. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The China Study and recommend it to many people. I would indeed like to read the full research, which amounts to over 700 pages, from which the book was condensed – I just haven’t yet got my hands on that particular manuscript.

      I am personally not sure how we should classify humans in a dietary sense, and we do not comfortably fit into the anatomical/biological classification of herbivores; this generally refers to a particular type of dentition and specific digestive system, i.e. that of the ruminant, (cow, sheep, goat etc) or the hindgut fermenter (rabbit, guinea pig). Some like to call us frugivorous (fruit and leaves – although high fruit consumption comes with its own challenges) and others state we are omnivorous (although I personally disagree with the omnivore classification). What is certain is that we can survive on all sorts of things which we were probably never intended to eat according to our biological blueprint, but do not thrive on such unnatural substances, ultimately paying the price for these transgressions.

      What is also certain is the weight of evidence linking animal protein consumption to a higher incidence of degenerative disease of all types. Whilst the original research on animal protein cited in The China Study was performed on rats rather than humans, many other studies are now indicating that the same is true for us. I am sure that even more evidence will come to light as time goes on, but why wait to make the necessary changes? Releasing anger and resentment, chilling out and letting go, getting enough sleep, being part of an active community and feeling part of something bigger than ourselves – as well as a plant-based diet, will allow us to thrive as Nature and the Universe intended.

  3. Dérisoire Piqûre says:

    As prolific eater of red meat and a generally unhealthy eater in college I now am fairly convinced that the loss of both my testicles to cancer was due, in part, to unhealthy diet. Regardless of that possible link I have been eating healthier. It’s too late to save my balls, but there are other organs to protect. Thanks for the interesting and informative article.

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