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Is It the Diet, the Exercise, or Both?

Whose blood is better at killing cancer cells? People who eat a standard diet and exercise strenuously or those who eat a plant-based diet and just exercise moderately?

September 19, 2012 |
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Sources Cited

Acknowledgements

Images thanks to: Tebu.an and Linuxerist via Wikimedia Commons and PNNL - Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Transcript

This dramatic strengthening of cancer defenses was after 14 days of a plant-based diet and exercise, they were out walking 30 to 60 minutes a day. Although Pritikin started out reversing chronic disease through diet alone, later—to his credit—he added an exercise component as well. That’s great for the patients, but scientifically it makes it hard to tease out which is doing what. Maybe the only reason their blood started becoming so effective at suppressing cancer growth was because of the exercise—maybe the diet component had nothing to do with it. So they put it do the test.

They set up an experiment with three groups. The first group did nothing—the control group, the second did the diet and exercise, and the third group was just exercise. The diet and exercise group had been on a plant-based diet for 14 years along with moderate exercise—like just walking every day. The second group was just exercise, but they were hardcore. Not just exercise, but 14 years of daily strenuous hour-long exercise, like calisthenics. But, they ate the standard American diet. In fact they were actually overweight. They had been killing themselves in the gym every day for 14 years and still their BMI averaged 26.5, whereas of course the guys on plant-strong diet were ideal body weight. But let’s see who’s better fighting cancer.

They took petri dishes brimming full of human prostate cancer cells and dripped blood from each of the three groups on different dishes to see whose blood kicked more cancer butt. What do you think they found?

Whose blood was better at killing cancer cells? This is a graph measuring cancer cell apoptosis, or programmed cell death. Cancer cells programmed to commit suicide. It’s one way the body gets of rid of cancer cells. Basically our immune system taps them on the shoulder, and says look, you know there’s only way this is going to end, don't you? Why don’t you take the honorable way out. It will be quicker, easier. If they start with the chemo and everything—it’s going to get messy. Take the easy way out, and just, kill yourself, which our immune system is sometimes capable of convincing cancer cells to do.

Here’s the blood of the control group. Not very persuasive. Cancer’s like take your programmed cell death and shove it.

And as we saw before, here’s the effect of the blood of those in the Pritikin group. After 14 years on a plant-based diet you can bet their bloodstream was clearing cancer cells left and right.

What about the hardcore exercise group here in the middle? Did they clear cancer just as good as the Pritkin group? If that's the case then it wasn't the diet at all—the exercise was the critical component. Were they somewhere in the middle, showing that exercise helped, but not as good as the plant-based diet group? Or were they down here with the control group. Maybe exercise helps with other things, but just not killing cancer?

And what they found was this. Exercise worked! But diet and exercise worked better. Here’s an actual photomicrograph of the cells in the control petri dish stained so that they’d release light when they died. As you can see in the control group, there were a few cancer cells dying. Even if you are a couch potato eating fried potatoes, your body’s not totally defenseless. But here’s the hard-core strenuous exercise group. Cancer cells dying left and right. And then here’s what happens when you drip on the blood of someone who just walks a bit every day—but, eats a plant based diet. You get a cancer cell suicide tsunami.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Kerry Skinner.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

This is the third of a 15 video series exploring this phenomenon, which I attempted to summarize in Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death. Make sure to see yesterday's video-of-the-day Developing an Ex Vivo Cancer Proliferation Bioassay, which describes the experimental protocol in more detail. Even though diet appears more powerful than exercise in terms of rallying one's cancer defenses it doesn't mean we can't do both! In fact eating certain plants can improve athletic performance—check out my video series that starts with Doping With Beet Juice and ends with So Should We Drink Beet Juice Or Not?. Exercise itself may be protective against breast cancer, and be instrumental in Reversing Cognitive Decline. If a healthy diet can slow down the abnormal growth of prostate cancer cells, how about the abnormal growth of normal prostate cells? Find out in tomorrow's video-of-the-day Some Prostates Are Larger Than Others

For some context, please check out my associated blog posts: Top 10 Most Popular Videos of the YearCancer-Proofing Your Body, How Do Plant-Based Diets Fight Cancer?, Vegan Men: More Testosterone But Less CancerTreadmill Desks: Stand Up For Health, and Flaxseeds for Prostate Cancer

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

    This is the third of a 15 video series exploring this phenomenon, which I attempted to summarize in Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death. Make sure to see yesterday’s video-of-the-day Developing an Ex Vivo Cancer Proliferation Bioassay, which describes the experimental protocol in more detail. Even though diet appears more powerful than exercise in terms of rallying one’s cancer defenses it doesn’t mean we can’t do both! In fact eating certain plants can improve athletic performance—check out my video series that starts with Doping With Beet Juice and ends with So Should We Drink Beet Juice Or Not?. Exercise itself may be protective against breast cancer, and be instrumental in Reversing Cognitive Decline. If a healthy diet can slow down the abnormal growth of prostate cancer cells, how about the abnormal growth of normal prostate cells? Find out in tomorrow’s video-of-the-day Some Prostates Are Larger Than Others

    If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      I like the Johnny Paycheck reference: Take your programed cell death and shove it!.
      I sing this verse to the same tune: 
      Take this cancer and shove it, I ain’t eatin’ meat no more
      My women just cooked me a plant based meal
      It’s what I’ve been lookin for.
      :-}

  • martin

    it is a pity they didn’t have a fourth group with both strenuous exercise and plant-based food, now we don’t know how a plant based body reacts on exercise compared to a body on a s.a.d.
    (Does a plant-based body responds even better to strenuous training or or is the immune system is already working max speed just by eating the right diet and moderate exercise?)
    Martin

    • DT

      The Barnard et at 2003 study is invalid for making the conclusion that diet+exercise is superior to just exercise as this is not a randomized trial (the 3 groups are unrelated and not selected randomly at baseline).

       

      • donmatesz

         What do you mean by “invalid”?  Are you saying it supplies no valuable information?

        IMO, saying it is invalid is like saying that Thomas Edison’s first 9,999 attempts at making a light bulb were invalid because they didn’t produce a light bulb.  In reality, every one of those ‘mistakes’ provided Edison with valuable information that led him to the invention of the light bulb. 

        Just so, most pieces of research, though flawed, provide some valuable clues.  These clues lead to further research, which provides more information.  In this case, this piece of research suggests that diet+exercise is superior to exercise alone.  Since we have good evidence that diet affects hormone and immune status their conclusion is not “invalid.” 

        You seem to believe that only “conclusive” studies are valid, which is not what scientists believe.  Rather, they look at the trend of research and evaluate each study in relation to other research that may support or not the conclusions.  They look for the preponderance of evidence, not a single “conclusive” study.

        • Doug R

           I agree; invalid is too harsh a word. DT seems to be saying that there might be some self-selection bias. The diet and light exercise group might choose these activities because they’re more health-conscious and  they may already be doing other unrelated things which actually result in greater apoptosis such as taking supplements that fight cancer. The heavy exercise group may be taking only steroids which might partly block the cancer-fighting effects of cancer since they act as growth promoters.

        • Veganrunner

          I agree. These arguments just crack me up. 

          Dr. Barnard is a disciplined researcher and professor at UCLA. (talk about pier review!) Having not read the original piece and only the abstract I can’t comment specifically on the research. But I am sure he was after something. Invalid? Doubt it. He researches how diet and exercise affects the health of the body and more specifically the cardiovascular system, and he has been doing it forever. He was my professor 30 years ago. 

          • DT

             My critique is on the misuse of the study by Dr. Greger, which he presents as a decisive proof that the difference was due to the diet,
            Moreover, even if the difference is indeed due to the diet, we do not know which aspect of the diet had the effect. Maybe it was the elimination of vegetable oil? Maybe it was the elimination of refined carbohydrates?

          • Roberta Peck

            Good points

    • DT

       Few other minor points:
      Beside the difference in diet there were other differences between the groups. The diet+exercise group was very thin (BMI 21.5), the exercise group was overweight (26.5), and the “control” group was obese (38). The people in the diet+exercise group were also 7 years younger on average. Maybe these differences explain the different rates of apoptosis. Other difference may exists between the groups (smoking, ethnicity) but no information is given in the paper.

      Dr Greger continues to be misleading about the Pritikin diet which does include animal products. This time he even calls the people vegan, which they are not.

      Dr Greger gives an inaccurate description of the physical activity of the diet+exercise group, which he describes as “strolling”.  The people in this group did (initially) aerobic exercise 4-5 times per week with target heart rate of 70%-85% which is clearly not “strolling”.

      • Doug R

         Thanks for pointing out the details, DT. We need to keep the facts straight and not be given a slanted opinion. Great job and keep it up. I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

      • Veganrunner

        Definitely not strolling. Pritikin is not vegan–low fat plant based.

        You obviously read the entire article. What was the purpose of the research?

  • http://twitter.com/ryazwinski Rick Yazwinski

    I take issue with your comment about the folks who killed themselves in the gym with high BMIs being unfit.  A BMI that is considered “overweight” or “obese” could be easily achieved with muscle mass and low body fat.  BMI is useless without more data.

    • Veganrunner

      So true. Rick look at those muscles in your picture! 

  • Veganrunner

    Here’s to plant strong diet and exercise!

    Off for my run!

  • impkokay

    I would be curious to see the results of a plant based diet with little to no exercise. 

  • Domeonmoutain

    Have to agree . Missing the most important comparison. Exercise and plant based , Vs  
    plant based only.

    • HemoDynamic, M.D.

      The problem is that when people are plant based vegan (Not oil based) they can’t sit still.  They have so much energy that they will spontaneously be doing more activities.  They want to move.  Maybe you could chain the plant based Vegans to a chair so they can’t exercise.
       
      Compare and contrast this to the Pizza the Hutt diet from Space Balls.
      ;-}

  • http://www.facebook.com/RabbitMouse Rm Ro

    I’m all for a healthy diet, exercise, and chemo / radiation for cancer patients. Attack damn cancer with everything you can find!

  • elias masri

    mehh vegan propaganda…

  • http://www.facebook.com/shaikailash Stefano Esposito

    this study doesn’t seem to me very convincing! To be meaningful, I believe, the groups needed to be omogeneous at the beginnin, then put on three different treatments…isn’t it?

  • henry2403

    Dr. Greger,

    Thank you for this amazing site and your continued hard work.

    It has helped change my life and has become a go to reference for my patients.
     

  • Theresa A.

    Hooray for the plant based diet.  Does PBD mean vegan  
    however?  If so, I wonder what a Nutritarian vegan diet would yield in the petri dish.
    You know..GOMBBS (Super Immunity) Greens, Onions, Mushrooms, Beans, Berries, Seeds (and nuts). 
    Thank you!  

  • http://twitter.com/Cunningrand Cunningrand

    There’s two thing’s I never get about the videos in this series.

    1. Why the conclusion is always that it’s the fact that a diet is “plant-based” that is being peddled, when the diets aren’t even equivalent in terms of nutrition and allow for daily consumption of animal products. I don’t see how one can say that it’s the plant content that matters without doing a study using a diet that is similar to the Pritikin diet, but containing more lean animal products.

    2. Why Bruce Friedrich keeps posting links to these videos on Twitter touting the cancer fighting benefits of a “vegan” diet.

  • Dar

    I would have liked to see two more groups included in this study…sedentary plant-based vegans and strenuously exercising plant-based vegans.

  • Kevin

    Thanks Doc!  I am a cancer survivor and have been cancer free for over 10 years.  I have been following a WFPB diet and exercise since my diagnosis.  I now teach others to do the same at my gyms.  Check us out  The MBG-3  www.monkeybargym.com 

  • Trisha M

    Thank you for listing the sources! Such a great resource thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=666366687 Stephen Lucker Kelly

    Can you make a food list of foods you recommend to eat. With a simple meal list. And any supplements you might consider people to take. Plus how much exercise to do and what types? Like a little article or three part videos on it… or something. :-)

  • naama

    Hi Dr.Greger, I have a question:
    I’m 20 years old and exercise daily, (aerobic and anaerobic sports) I need to eat 2400 calories everyday in order to maintain my weight. I would like your advice for a daily plant-based diet for me.
    Thank you,
    Na’ama
    Israel

    • http://www.DonForresterMD.com/ Don Forrester MD

      Your daily diet will depend alot on your tastes. Most of my patients have a habit where they eat they have a regular rotation of menu items… maybe 1-2 for breakfast, 3-4 for lunch and 6-10 for dinner. It is a question of what works for you and those around you. A good starter is the Vegetarian Starter Kit which can be found free on the Physicians Committee for Responsible website. Other resources available for free is Dr. John McDougall’s website which contains alot of recipes as well. The basic whole food plant based diet with Vitamin B12 supplementation is the foundation but needs to be varied depending on the goals of the patient and any clinical issues such as family history or diagnosis. Congrats on starting to eat healthy at such a young age. Keep tuned to NutritionFacts.org for the latest in science. Good luck.

    • Toxins

      If by weight, you mean maintaining your muscle mass, then as long as you are eating whole plant foods when your hungry till your full, you will not experience muscle wasting. I prefer the complex carbohydrate approach of consuming whole grains like rice, oats and whole pasta, beans as well as potatoes and any other complex starches that I missed mentioning. these foods are highly satiating, nutritious and more calorie dense then plain veggies.Of course you would want to mix veggies with these starches for an optimally healthy meal.

  • Roberta Peck

    Thank you for the information . I would think that the age difference and body fat differences would as well impact the graph, aside from that that not all Pritican “vegans” were 100 percent vegans

  • tinyR

    This is such great information. It would help if you would accompany your videos with the research citations for those of us who want to learn more about the studies.

    • Thea

      tinyR: Already done! Under every video is a section called “Sources Cited”. Just click the link to expand that section.