A Low Methionine Diet May Help Starve Cancer Cells

A Low Methionine Diet May Help Starve Cancer Cells

When designing an antibiotic, we can’t create a drug that destroys DNA because that’s something that both humans and bacteria share in common. It would kill bacteria, but it might kill us, too. Instead, many antibiotics work by attacking bacterial cell walls, which is something bacteria have that we don’t.

Similarly, antifungals can attack the unique cell walls of fungus. Pesticides can work by attacking the special exoskeleton of insects. But fighting cancer is harder because cancer cells are our own cells. So fighting cancer comes down to trying to find and exploit differences between cancer cells and normal cells.

Forty years ago, a landmark paper was published showing for the first time that many human cancers have what’s called “absolute methionine dependency,” meaning that if we try to grow cells in a Petri dish without giving them the amino acid methionine, normal cells thrive, but without methionine, cancer cells die. Normal breast cells grow no matter what, with or without methionine, but cancer cells need that added methionine to grow.

What does cancer do with the methionine? Tumors use it to generate gaseous sulfur-containing compounds that, interestingly, can be detected by specially trained diagnostic dogs. There are mole-sniffing dogs that can pick out skin cancer. There are breath-sniffing dogs that can pick out people with lung cancer. Pee-sniffing dogs that can diagnose bladder cancer and–you guessed it–fart-sniffing dogs for colorectal cancer. Doctors can now bring their lab to the lab!

It gives a whole new meaning to the term “pet scan.” :)

Methionine dependency is not just present in cancer cell lines in a Petri dish. Fresh tumors taken from patients show that many cancers appear to have a biochemical defect that makes them dependent on methionine, including some tumors of the colon, breast, ovary, prostate, and skin. Pharmaceutical companies are fighting to be the first to come out with a drug that decreases methionine levels. But since methionine is sourced mainly from food, a better strategy may be to lower methionine levels by lowering methionine intake, eliminating high methionine foods to control cancer growth as well as improve our lifespan (see Methionine Restriction as a Life-Extension Strategy).

Here’s the thinking: smoking cessation, consumption of diets rich in plants, and other lifestyle measures can prevent the majority of cancers. Unfortunately, people don’t do them, and as a result hundreds of thousands of Americans develop metastatic cancer each year. Chemotherapy cures only a few types of metastatic cancer. Unfortunately, the vast majority of common metastatic cancers, such as breast, prostate, colon, and lung, are lethal. We therefore desperately need novel treatment strategies for metastatic cancer, and dietary methionine restriction may be one such strategy.

So, where is methionine found? In my video, Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction, you can see a graph of foods with their respective methionine levels. Chicken and fish have the highest levels. Milk, red meat, and eggs have less, but if we really want to stick with lower methionine foods, fruits, nuts, veggies, grains, and beans are the best. In other words, “In humans, methionine restriction may be achieved using a predominately vegan diet.”

There are also compounds in animal products that may actually stimulate tumor growth. See, for example, How Tumors Use Meat to Grow: Xeno-Autoantibodies. Animal protein may also boost levels of the cancer-promoting hormone IGF-1 (The Answer to the Pritikin Puzzle). Combined, this could all help explain why plants and plant-based diets have been found effective in potentially reversing some cancer processes. See Cancer Reversal Through Diet?, Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer, and Black Raspberries versus Oral Cancer.

So why isn’t every oncologist prescribing a low-methionine diet? One researcher notes that “Despite many promising preclinical and clinical studies in recent years, dietary methionine restriction and other dietary approaches to cancer treatment have not yet gained wide clinical application. Most clinicians and investigators are probably unfamiliar with nutritional approaches to cancer.” That’s an understatement! “Many others may consider amino acid restriction as an ‘old idea,’ since it has been examined for several decades. However, many good ideas remain latent for decades if not centuries before they prove valuable in the clinic….With the proper development, dietary methionine restriction, either alone or in combination with other treatments, may prove to have a major impact on patients with cancer.”

Why might the medical profession be so resistant to therapies proven to be effective? The Tomato Effect may be partially to blame.

In my video, Anti-Angiogenesis: Cutting Off Tumor Supply Lines, researchers come to the same plant-based conclusion from a different perspective, starving cancers of their blood supply.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.

Image Credit: PNNL – Pacific Northwest National Laboratory / Flickr

  • Deborah M Conner

    So what about S-adenosylmethionine? And TMG. I cannot move or get around without them. Where do they fit in?

    • Bean

      I would like to know the answer to this as well! Is SAMe equivalent to methionine?

      • Deborah M Conner

        related. metabolites. wiki’s good for info. .

        but here’s more –2014-07-04

        Plasma Methionine, Choline, Betaine, and Dimethylglycine, in relation to Colorectal Cancer Risk in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)


        Conclusions Individuals with high plasma concentrations of methionine, choline, and betaine *may be at reduced risk* of colorectal cancer.

  • Shalin Shah

    A growing number of oncologists are prescribing plant based diets. I personally recommend it for nearly everyone as an important adjunct to conventional therapy.

    • John Grano

      Is methionine restriction helpful for lung tumor growth? Thank you!

  • albert

    It’s quite interesting that exactly sulfur-rich vegetables such as garlic and onion are some of the best anti-cancer foods..

    • Dessi Issaeva

      Yes, I’ve been wondering about that…

    • b00mer

      While garlic and onions contain other therapeutic sulfurous compounds, both are extremely low in methionine compared to animal foods. Example:

      1 chicken breast (300 Cal) = 1.57 g methionine
      67 garlic cloves (300 Cal) = 0.15 g methionine
      4.7 cups onion (300 Cal) = 0.02 g methionine

      Further taking into account that while a chicken breast is an average serving size, but 67 garlic cloves or a quart of onion is not, the numbers become even more disparate.

      With more realistic (and still very generous) serving sizes:

      1 garlic clove = <0.01 g methionine
      1 cup chopped onion = <0.01 g methionine

  • Oliver Theunissen

    I eat two brazil nuts each morning in order to get my Selen. These nuts also contain a lot oft methionine. Would you say it’s OK to stay with brazil nuts or would you suggest another source of Selen?

    • b00mer

      Brazil nuts, like most plant foods are *very low* in Met compared to animal products. Example:

      1 chicken breast (300 Calories) = 1.57 g Met
      1 brazil nut (31 Calories) = 0.05 g Met

      Even if you ate 10 brazil nuts to get 300 Calories worth, you would still be consuming less than a third of the methionine that you would get from one chicken breast.

      • Oliver Theunissen

        Brazil nuts do have the highest content of methionine of all known food: 7% of the amino acids are methionine. The reason that I eat only 2-3 brazil nuts per day is not the methionine, but 1) they contain enough selen and 2) brazil nuts also contain a lot of barium and this is a bit poisonous.

  • Dessi Issaeva

    Dr. Greger, could you please comment on the methionine link between the discussion above and sufficient levels of vitamin B12. I was just watching this B12 video of yours:

  • Coacervate

    what happens when a cell transforms into cancer to make it unable to make methionine?

  • San Diego

    What about fish oil pills to get omega 3 FAs, are they OK? If we are told to avoid fish due to methionine, does the same hold true for fish oil?

  • CharlesGeorge73

    Watch out for the Fluoroquinolone antibiotics (Cipro, Levaquin, Avelox, etc. as they do target DNA! http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/418293_3

  • CharlesGeorge73

    Some additional information on the new concerns regarding quinolone antibiotics (aka Fluoroquinolones,
    Cipro, Levaquin, Avelox, etc. )…

    CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=50150343n
    7/6/2013 (2 minute video)

    FDA: http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalProducts/ucm365302.htm 8/15/2013

    Sept., 2013: http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/healthcare/New-warnings-for-common-antibiotic-class.html

    And a documentary…

    Floxed–‘The new F word’
    Certain Adverse Events (Fluoroquinolone Documentary): http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=A0CEC6B7479E84E1

    Some additional news stories /

    Forbes: http://www.forbes.com/sites/melaniehaiken/2012/09/30/antibiotic-alert-the-drug-the-doctor-ordered-could-cause-deadly-side-effects/

    NY Times: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/10/popular-antibiotics-may-carry-serious-side-effects/?_r=0 9/10/2012

    PBS News Hour: http://www..youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OAahaJ4SQcg





    Research / studies:

    Harvard: http://wyss.harvard.edu/viewpressrelease/117/ 7/3/2013

    Mayo: http://www.levaquinadversesideeffect.com/wp-content/uploads/Documents/Hall-2011.pdf 2011

    http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2008/10000/Adverse_Reactions_to_Fluoroquinolones.23.aspx 10/2008

    • Jane Jackson

      I was poisoned by Ciprofloxacin, prescribed for me in December 2012 for an ordinary bladder infection. It caused interstitial cystitis, and I suffer bladder pain intermittently even now. Please help us, by registering for the UCSD Fluoroquinolone Effects Study; and share this on your social media networks.

      I quote a researcher at the University of Calfornia – San Diego:
      Have you taken an antibiotic such as Cipro (ciprofloxacin), Levaquin (levofloxacin), or Avelox (moxifloxacin)? Would you be willing to help in a survey-based medical research study?

      Dr. Beatrice A. Golomb and her colleagues at the University of California, San Diego are conducting a new study to identify and describe side effects and risk factors for good and bad outcomes involving antibiotics in the fluoroquinolone class. Other example fluoroquinolones include Zymar (gatifloxacin), Floxin (ofloxacin), Zagam (sparfloxacin), Trovan (trovafloxacin), Tavanic, and Vigamox.

      Whether you believe you have experienced side effects or you believe you have tolerated them, you are invited to participate in this voluntary study. Participants possessing English language fluency from all countries are accepted. Information is at http://www.fqstudy.info .

  • Do we need methionine in our diet? According to this article, “…your cells can make cysteine from methionine if necessary; however, if your intake of cysteine is low, you need extra methionine in your diet not only to meet your methionine needs but also to manufacture cysteine.” Source: http://healthyeating.sfgate.com/many-amino-acids-body-require-6412.html

  • Val

    As a menopausal woman with very dry skin, I recently heard about Collagen Peptides. I am mostly plant based, so this product, made from Brazilian bovine hide, isn’t particularly attractive to me. It contains 108 mg of methionine/serving, among other things. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on this kind of product which claims to benefit joints, bones, immunity and digestive health as well. At a time when my body is adjusting (and not in a fun way) to hormonal fluctuations, would collagen peptides be an option while maintaining health?

  • D.r Emad

    plsma level Methionin185.29 child 8ys what about hes feeding .favouret .preveted foods

  • Dave_S

    Quote, “When designing an antibiotic, we can’t create a drug that destroys DNA
    because that’s something that both humans and bacteria share in common.
    It would kill bacteria, but it might kill us, too. Instead, many
    antibiotics work by attacking bacterial cell walls, which is something
    bacteria have that we don’t.”

    Actually there is a LOT wrong with this statement. First off, Fluoroquinolones, DO destroy DNA and are given out like candy, and DO kill people, and very badly injure them, they are pure poison and should NEVER be used only in an emergency, but are routinely given out for UTI, Sinus infection etc

    2nd – ALL Antibiotics attack bacteria in one way or another, cell wall or what you have you, the problem is they do this to OUR GOOD BACTERIA too, so that IS something WE HAVE, and once it is attacked and damaged, not all of it come back, permanently injuring people and in some cases, destroying their lives and causing Disease. Antibiotics, ALL of them, are poison

    As a MD, you should know these things

  • LJE01

    What do you think about the methionine-rich cottage cheese in the Dr. Budwig flax oil/cottage cheese muesli? Do you think the benefits of the electron-rich flax oil emulsified into the sulfur-rich cottage cheese, which transport oxygen into cancer cells, outweigh any risk of aggravating methionine-dependent cancers? Thanks!

    • Thea

      LJE01: I like how you think. As you seem to understand, food is a package deal, and thus you have to weigh the overall pros and cons of any food. In that spirit, I offer you these thoughts:
      There is a lot more wrong with dairy/cheese than just having lots of methionine: http://nutritionfacts.org/topics/dairy/

      And flax oil, even though it comes from flaxseeds which are very good for you, is still just oil: highly processed extracted almost pure fat. Dr. Greger writes in his new book, How Not To Die, “I think of oil as the table sugar of the fat kingdom.” page 298
      So, in my opinion, the product you are talking about is taking one fairly unhealthy food and emulsifying it with an even worse unhealthy food. Why go there? Why not just enjoy the ground flaxseeds in your morning oatmeal or smoothie or something?