There’s no simple answer to this question. Cancer is a highly complex disease that we are still trying to understand. The second-leading cause of death in the U.S., cancer affects millions of people at various stages of their lives. Billions of research dollars have gone into examining how and why the disease originates, and we do know that genetic and environmental factors come into play.
Diet is one of these environmental factors, and it’s quite a challenging area to study because our diets typically change over time (for instance, I ate meat until fifth grade). This is important because what we ate decades ago could affect our present risk of developing cancer. Further, there is no easy lab test to assess risk. If we are curious about diabetes risk, we can test our blood glucose levels. If we worry about cardiovascular disease, we can test our cholesterol and blood pressure. Cancer is more complicated.
What we do know is that animal foods have been linked to various types of cancer.
Specifically, processed meats (like sausage, bacon, and hot dogs) and red meat have been shown to raise risk of colorectal and stomach cancers. Dairy has been linked to increased risk of prostate cancer. Saturated fat, found heavily in animal foods, is also associated with elevated cancer risk.
On the flip side, whole soy foods (like tofu and tempeh) have been shown to lower risk of breast, prostate, and endometrial cancers. Fiber, found only in plant foods, has also been linked to decreased cancer risk. Beyond prevention, studies have demonstrated that fiber and soy consumption after breast cancer treatment can increase survival rates.
As a vegan dietitian, I advocate eating a diet based solely on plants. I feel it is the best choice for animals, our environment, and our health. This said, I think reminding ourselves that we cannot say definitively that a vegan diet will prevent or cure all diseases is always important. Vegans can still get sick, and yes, vegans can still get cancer.
So to answer the original question, a plant-based diet might reduce your risk of certain cancers. Plant foods are rich in phytochemicals, fiber, vitamins, and minerals—all of which have important protective roles in our bodies. Eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains is commonsense nutrition.
Anya Todd is a registered, licensed dietitian specializing in vegan nutrition. Visit AnyaTodd.com to learn more about Anya Todd and living a compassionate, healthy lifestyle!