Phytates for the Treatment of Cancer

Image Credit: The Ewan / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Phytates in Beans: Anti-Nutrient or Anti-Cancer?

In my videos, Phytates in the Prevention of Cancer and Phytates for Rehabilitating Cancer Cells, I described how phytates in beans may be the reason why legumes are so successful in preventing cancer and re-educating cancer cells. What about phytates for the treatment of cancer?

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. It arises from “adenomatous polyps,” meaning that colon cancer starts out as a benign little bump called a polyp and then grows into cancer that can eventually spread to other organs and kill. So the National Cancer Institute funded the Polyp Prevention Trial, highlighted in my video, Phytates for the Treatment of Cancer, to determine the effects of a high-fiber, high fruit and vegetable, low-fat diet.

Researchers found no significant associations between polyp formation and overall change in fruit and vegetable consumption. However, those with the greatest increase in bean intake only had about a third of the odds of advanced polyps popping up. It could have been the fiber in the beans, but there’s lots of fiber in fruits and vegetables, too. So it may have been the phytate.

If the tumors develop from polyps, they still need to spread. Tumor growth, invasion, and metastasis are multistep processes that include cell proliferation, digestion through the surrounding tissue, and migration through barrier membranes to reach the bloodstream so the tumor can establish new proliferating colonies of cancer cells. A critical event in tumor cell invasion is the first step: the tunneling through the surrounding matrix. To do this, the cancer cells use a set of enzymes called matrix metalloproteinases. This is where phytates might come in. We’ve known that phytates inhibit cancer cell migration in vitro, and now perhaps we know why. Phytates help block the ability of cancer cells to produce the tumor invasion enzyme in the first place (at least for human colon and breast cancer cells).

So what happens if you give phytates to breast cancer patients? Although a few case studies where phytates were given in combination with chemotherapy clearly showed encouraging data, organized, controlled, randomized clinical studies were never done—until now. Fourteen women with invasive breast cancer were divided randomly into two  groups. One group got extra phytates; the other got placebo. At the end of six months, the phytate group had a better quality of life, significantly more functionality, fewer symptoms from the chemo, and did not get the drop in immune cells and platelets chemo patients normally experience.

What are the potential side effects of phytates? Less heart disease, less diabetes, and fewer kidney stones.

Because cancer development is such an extended process—it can take decades to grow—we need cancer preventive agents that we can take long-term. Phytates, which naturally occur in beans, grains, nuts, and seeds, seem to fit the bill.

In the past, there were concerns that the intake of foods high in phytates might reduce the bioavailability of dietary minerals, but recent studies demonstrate that this co-called “anti-nutrient” effect can be manifested only when large quantities of phytates are consumed in combination with a nutrient poor diet. For example, there used to be a concern that phytate consumption might lead to calcium deficiency, which then led to weakened bones, but researchers discovered that the opposite was true, that phytates actually protect against osteoporosis (See Phytates for the Prevention of Osteoporosis). In essence, phytates have many characteristics of a vitamin, contrary to the established and, unfortunately, still existing dogma among nutritionists regarding its ‘anti-nutrient’ role.

As one paper in the International Journal of Food Science & Technology suggests:

“Given the numerous health benefits, phytates participation in important intracellular biochemical pathways, normal physiological presence in our cells, tissues, plasma, urine, etc., the levels of which fluctuate with intake, epidemiological correlates of phytate deficiency with disease and reversal of those conditions by adequate intake, and safety – all strongly suggest for phytates inclusion as an essential nutrient, perhaps a vitamin.”

The paper concludes that inclusion of phytates in our diet for prevention and therapy of various ailments, cancer in particular, is warranted.

More on preventing tumor invasion and metastasis in:

Other foods that can help stop the progression of precancerous lesions (like the adenomatous polyps) are profiled in Strawberries versus Esophageal Cancer and Black Raspberries versus Oral Cancer.

There’s a substance in mushrooms that’s also another “essential” nutrient candidate. See Ergothioneine: A New Vitamin?

-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.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

32 responses to “Phytates in Beans: Anti-Nutrient or Anti-Cancer?

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    1. I believe it’s because they are highly digestable and move thru the gut well vs breads and meats which tend to get stuck and probably partially rot to be crude about it. lol

        1. Jason, are you sure about that? Because that is not what was stated in the article. So you are saying there is no difference what so ever, that gram to gram, fruits and vegetables have exactly the same amount of phytates as beans. No differences in the nutritional profile at all. Frankly, I find that hard to believe.

  1. Today Nutrition Facts was used as a reference on Dr Mercola sited Dr. Greger’s May 14, 2015 video on nuts. “With regards to nuts, one recent study10 found that daily nut consumption translated into an extra two years of longevity, and cut death rates of cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease. As reported by Nutrition Facts, “nut consumers lived significantly longer whether they were older or younger, fat or skinny, whether they exercised more, smoked, drank, or ate other foods that may affect mortality.” They also busted the myth that nuts’ high fat content will make you gain weight.”

    1. When I first adopted a plant based diet I ate a lot of almonds. I ate between 8-16ozs of almonds a day. As far as they weight goes, I lost 30lbs eating that way. As far as health that was the end of me being sick going on 4 years now. Not even a cold.

    1. Hey Bea. It really depends on what else you are eating, sex, and age, so hard to say. USDA recommends 5.0-6.5 ounce equivalents for adult women and men. A 1/2 cup of beans is considered a serving.

  2. Wow, this is really interesting. I have been soaking my grains and beans for years to try to diminish the anti nutrient idea of phytates. My kitchen prep just got easier. Many thanks for your great work.

    1. Try smaller beans (lentils) or cooing them longer, soaking, sprouting, or maybe even a bit of kombu while cooking? If still problematic perhaps avoid. Others may have alternative suggestions.

        1. It’s may also be individualized regarding what beans are helpful or harmful? I have a friend with Crohns who swears he cannot eat certain beans, but chickpeas and lentils are fine. I think he is crazy, but I do not take him for a liar. He also claims store bought bread gives him a hard time, but homemade rotti (he is basically Indian) with whole grain flour and no additives is fine. Anecdotally, some of these things help him, but I have no idea how this would relate to others with IBD. See what works for you! You may also consider talking to your doctor about mucilaginous herbs like slippery elm and marshmallow root. We need way more research here so I was reluctant to even mention, but I feel these herbs (check with your doctor) may offer some support and are non-invasive and will not boost a flare. Vitamin D and probiotics could help. And also glutamine. Lastly, (or perhaps first) I would check out Dr. Greger’s videos on IBS. Kiwi and cayenne have been found to help, as well. Good luck, Will. Let us know what works?

            1. WooHoo!!! Go chickpeas. Okay, that makes 2 people anecdotally. Good luck. Let us know what else seems to work. Looks like Sara has found relief from smaller beans, too.

        2. Hi Will, you can also try to eat small amounts of legumes frequently, instead of having quite large servings. I have light IBS symptoms (largely improved on a WFPBD) , and if I eat legumes this way I don’t experience discomfort afterwards. So, small amounts of legumes per meal, always soaked and well cooked until very soft. I also tolerate some of them better, for example the delicious lentils of which I can eat a big plate :). Joseph is right.

  3. What recent studies, besides the one example given, is Dr. Greger referencing in this statement: “recent studies demonstrate that this co-called “anti-nutrient” effect can be manifested only when large quantities of phytates are consumed in combination with a nutrient poor diet” ?

    1. I wondered this also. Wouldn’t a diet high in phytates be high in nutrients due to the nature of phytate-containing foods?

  4. I make hummus 2-3 times a week and use 2 cups of dry chickpeas that I soak overnight to cut down the cooking time. Should I start cooking them raw to increase the phytates? Thanks :-)

  5. Dr. Greger, could you talk about saponins as a risk for increasing gut permeability? I’ve been studying auto imumune diseases and they talk a lot about that and abou avoiding nightshade family. I appreciate.

    1. Auto-immune diseases are another ball game and certain foods (dairy, gluten, meat, citrus, nightshades) should be considered to help manage symptoms. Here is a video on gut permeability. Saponins appear to be health promoting so I do not think they cause “leaky gut.” One study states “Clinical studies have suggested that these health-promoting components, saponins, affect the immune system in ways that help to protect the human body against cancers, and also lower cholesterol levels.

  6. Hello!

    Thanks for sharing this amazing news on phytates! I wonder what is the correct procedure to prepare lentils and beans. Should we continue to soak them before preparing it? I use to soak it with a little amount of vinegar/lemon, exactly to diminish the phytate. So from now on I should soak with water only? For how long? Or no soak at all?

    Thank you so much! I have cancer patients in my family and cook for all of them!

  7. Dear Ingrid,

    I’ll let Dr. Greger know, so maybe he could do a video about it. I personally soak them overnight and then drain the water, but I’m not entirely sure if this is the best way to do it.

    Have you seen our videos for cancer? If not, make sure to check them out:

    Thanks for your request and have a nice day :-)!

    Moderator Adam P.

  8. ÂIs this why I have strange reactions after eating cooked grains? Because of the reduced phytate content? The boiled rice gives me an extreme lack of air and the feeling of a paralyzed colon, the raw rice comes down very easily without strange reactions. It’s been a while since I’ve been looking for an explanation for this.

  9. As other NF volunteers have pointed out, we each can react differently to different foods, so if focusing on lectins makes sense for your symptoms, it makes sense to vary your diet a bit and see if you avoid those reactions you’ve experienced in the past. Keep reading NF for new science-based ways to look at your health and nutrition.

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