Cholesterol Feeds Breast Cancer Cells

Image Credit: Andrew Bennett / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Breast Cancer Cells Feed on Cholesterol

One in eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. There are a number of compounds in plant foods that may protect against breast cancer by a variety of mechanisms. I’ve talked about the benefits of broccoli, flaxseeds, and soy foods before (See Breast Cancer Survival VegetableFlaxseeds & Breast Cancer Prevention, and Breast Cancer Survival and Soy) but a recent German study reported something new. The researchers found that sunflower and pumpkin seeds were associated with reduced breast cancer risk. They initially chalked the association up to the lignans in the seeds (See Breast Cancer Survival and Lignan Intake), but their lignan lead didn’t pan out. Maybe it’s the phytosterols found concentrated in seeds? (See Optimal Phytosterol Source).

There is evidence that phytosterols may be anticancer nutrients and play a role in reducing breast cancer risk. I thought phytosterols just lowered cholesterol? (See How Phytosterols Lower Cholesterol) What does cancer have to do with cholesterol?

Increasing evidence demonstrates the role that cholesterol may play in the development and progression of breast cancer. Cancer feeds on cholesterol. Transformed cells take up LDL, so-called “bad” cholesterol, and it’s capable of stimulating the growth of human breast cancer cells in a petri dish.

The ability to accumulate fat and cholesterol may enable cancer cells to take advantage of people eating high fat and high cholesterol diets and at least partially explain the benefit of a low-fat diet on lowering human breast cancer recurrence. Although the data has been mixed, the largest study to date (highlighted in my video, Cholesterol Feeds Breast Cancer Cells) found a 17% increased breast cancer risk in women who had a total cholesterol over 240 compared to women whose cholesterol was under 160. However, the researchers could not rule out that there may be something else in cholesterol-raising foods that’s increasing breast cancer risk.

Tumors suck up so much cholesterol that LDL has been considered a vehicle for delivering antitumor drugs to cancer cells. Since cancer feeds on cholesterol, maybe we could stuff some chemo into it like a Trojan horse poison pill?

The uptake of LDL into tumors may be why people’s cholesterol levels drop low after they get cancer—the tumor is eating it up. In fact, patient survival may be lowest when cholesterol uptake is highest. “High LDL receptor content in breast cancer tissue seems to indicate a poor prognosis, [suggesting] that breast tumors rich in LDL receptors may grow rapidly [in the body].” We’ve known about this for decades. You can tell that was an old study because, when it was published in the ‘80s, only 1 in 11 American women got breast cancer.

If cholesterol increases breast cancer risk, what about the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs? See Statin Cholesterol Drugs and Invasive Breast Cancer.

More videos on broccoli and soy’s protective effects against breast cancer:

Some I didn’t mention include:

-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.

35 responses to “Breast Cancer Cells Feed on Cholesterol

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  1. When I eat fresh stalks of celery my mouth goes tingly and numb. Someone below (I included their comments) said
    that it was caused by a chemical in celery. Others have told me it is from Eugenol in celery.

    Someone told me it was caused by Eugenol in celery, and this can be toxic to some people.
    Chemicals such as furanocoumourans as well?

    Anyway, would longterm exposure to this possibly cause harm to lining of stomach, GI tract, if it irritates
    the mouth like this? Doesn’t happen every time but it does tend to happen, even if the celery is fresh
    picked, vibrant, and organic.

    Wondering if anyone else has experienced this reaction.


    1. Could it be the oxalates causing this sensation? Darker, outer stalks are higher in oxalate than the inner blanched stalks. Interestingly, celery is the only thing that will halt my severe nausea, although I too sometimes observe an uncomfortable feeling in my mouth when I eat it. Pineapple too, is high in oxalate, and causes me similar although slightly different sensations, and sun sensitivity. I’ve read we can have too much oxalate, causing a buildup; possibly a reason for the “sometimes”, rather then every time? Oh, and to what the previous comment says, I’ve also read that boiling can reduce oxalate.

      1. Pineapple is not a commonly allergenic food, is not known to contain measurable amounts of oxalates or purines.

        In fact, pineapple’s bromelain content is why it’s considered an anti-inflammatory food.

        Therefore, it must be something else in pineapples causing that “mouth ripped to shreds” feeling, rather than oxalates. It could be merely the physical properties of the fiber, perhaps.

    2. Leslie: do you have the same problem with cloves? Cloves are the richest source of eugenol, so if eugenol is the culprit, you’d have a reaction when you eat cloves.

      Also, celery contains nitrites.

    3. Leslie – Have a look at comments under recent blog posts (within the last 2-3 I think) about furocoumarins (in citrus) and melanoma – there is a large study just out on this.

    1. Can’t wait to have study after study being thrown at my face for an hour. I had to watch the previous year-in-review 2-3 times to absorb all that information.


    A dietary pattern characterized by high fruit, vegetable, legume, whole grain, nut, berry, seed, and fish intakes, and possibly by intakes of dairy, coffee, tea, chocolate, and alcohol (not in excess), but low meat and detrimentally processed foods is associated with reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease and rates of noncardiovascular, noncancer chronic inflammatory-related mortality.

  3. Dietary cholesterol seems to not have a strong correlation with blood levels and we don’t really know why.
    Of the two women in the US who are aged 115, one eats 3 raw eggs at one meal daily, which is a very large dietary cholesterol load.
    Which is more important – the intake or the blood levels?
    Also, are these eggs from free range or factory fed chickens?.
    It seems that some are harmed by dietary cholesterol from egg yolks, while others may benefit.

  4. Dr. help me with this. Cholesterol is made by the liver. Eating cholesterol rich foods like eggs does not increase cholesterol in blood Or does it?

    1. It sure can. Have you seen Dr. Greger’s testimony. If not you may be interested in the communication/a>. I think he is at 2:06:00. Another speaker is Dr. Barnard who addresses the issue at hand. He is probably like 15 min before Dr. Greger, addressing the AHA/ACC report directly and then Dr. Greger follows-up on it. Another write-up that explains the confusion between dietary cholesterol. And I mention all of these links within this blog, Peek behind the egg industry curtain. Dietary cholesterol still appears to be a concern.

    1. Thanks for sharing this, Matthew! Just a quick tip (since I know you are an experienced user here), Dr. Greger usually does a great job at relating topics and hyperlinking in the Doctor’s Note. The Doctor’s Note is where I look first to find related articles and to help answer questions! It looks like he mentions how nuts, mushrooms, greens, and seaweed may help reduce breast cancer risk.

      1. Thanks I don’t see how I missed that.

        Is Dr. Greger planning on publishing more data on intervening with diet after a cancer diagnosis? The list of anti cancer foods according to this website include:

        nuts walnuts, pecans, peanuts
        vegetables garlic, beets, broccoli
        beans black beans, lentils
        fruits cranberries, lemons, apples
        spices turmeric (with pepper), rosemary, ginger
        tea matcha, white tea with lemon, hibiscus

        The five year survival rate of cancer is about half. With diet, that rate can be doubled to ten years for some individuals.

        Using selenium rich foods like Brazil nuts and garlic could help prevent cancer. Some individuals achieve a similar benefit with vitamins. Did you know that they say modern medical interventions are only 3 percent effective? I wish your results were more widely published and widely available.

  5. Biological fact: Cholesterol is a steroid hormone.
    Question: What value is there in stating that a hormone (and esp. cholesterol of all of them) affects the growth of a cancer? Sorry but in this particular post, you’re stating the obvious.

    Don’t stop at cholesterol, don’t stop at IGF-1, go to the core! hGh
    Why don’t you look instead at the hGh hormone and the link with diet? That will be more interesting!
    Did you know people whose pituitary gland was flashed with 12,5 mCi of gamma radiation with a Gamma Knife or Gamma Unit find the production of hGh selectively inhibited and can no longer develop cancers or diabetes? (Schaub)
    Is there a link between that mother hormone that hGh is, and diet?

    1. I think higher insulin is as cancer promoting as hGh? Too many refined carbs? I’ve read that most people after the age of 50 have incipient cancer(s). If you are older and have issues with minor chronic infections…too many colds…etc…probably a good idea to try and boost the immune system?

  6. I have breast cancer. In May of 2015, I went to an event at the New School in NYC. The featured speaker was Paul Stamets. The event was packed, every single seat was taken and people were even sitting in the aisle. Among other things, Paul Stamets said that his mother had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and given just 3 months to live. Her oncologist would not recommend chemotherapy/radiation because she was too old and the cancer too advanced. However, the oncologist did recommend Turkey Tail mushroom. Paul Stamets, played an audio of his mother calling about mundane matters and he said that was several years after her diagnosis. He mentioned other miracle stuff like that during the presentation, involving other deadly diseases. After the presentation, I went to WholeFoods Supermarket which is just a few blocks down the street to buy Turkey Tail Mushroom as a supplement. The Wholefoods clerk was already handing TTM to people that had been at the same event and wanted to buy it. I have been taking TTM since that time, till now. I did mention to my oncologist at Sloan Kettering that I was taking Turkey Tail and brought her a booklet detailing all the different mushrooms and what they are good for, that was given out at the event at the New School. The only thing I can see, is that my left breast is a lot smaller than my right breast, which is noticeably bigger. I have an appointment with my oncologist and surgeon, because I called them and told them about the size difference.
    I was wondering if you had ever heard of Turkey Tail mushroom and its supposed effects on breast cancer, Dr. Greger,

    1. I watched ​his talk on TED and he says that she in fact took two powerful and agressive drugs along with the mushroom: taxol (which is chemootherapy) and herceptin (kind of chemo, too). So, I am not saying the mushroom did nothing for her, on the contrary, but it was not only the mushroom. Dr. Greger does have a video on mushrooms in the PREVENTION of breast cancer, but treatment is a different thing – I would be interested in this, too.

      1. I have had radiation, but no chemotherapy.
        And yes, you are right he did say his mother took another drug in addition to Turkey Tail Mushroom. I was just surprised to see that many people in Wholefoods, that had attended the same event, lining up for Turkey Tail mushroom.

    2. Hi Gadea. We have so much information on mushrooms. The FDA approved a trial on turkey tail mushrooms in 2012. There may have been many more since. It sounds like you’ve done some homework! I am so glad you are asking these questions and communicating with your oncologist at Sloan-Kettering. I’ve heard of some great dietitians who work there. I have not read any research about mushrooms reducing breast size, but I suppose as long as there are no additional risks taking mushrooms than why not include them in your diet? Mushrooms contain beta-glucan fiber and can be thought of as immunomodulators.

      1. I started on Turkey Tail mushroom since I heard Paul Stamets at the New School. He talked them up. While he was careful to say, that he did not attribute any miracle cures to them, he nevertheless implied that repeatedly. I have always included White button mushrooms in my diet. I had an appointment with my oncologist Dr. Elizabeth Comen at Sloan Kettering and she did not put much stock in Paul Stamets claims. I had a booklet that was given out and she browsed through it.
        But I take TTM anyway.

  7. Thank You, dr.Greger for all extremly useful informations. I wnat know Your position to Canabis Oil therapy breast cancer ( and all rests too, and almost all chronical diseases, together with 80% raw fruits and 15% raw vegetables and5% seeds diet . Is this combination raw plant diet + canabis oil without psychoactive supstances , the best solution against cancer ( and many of other diseases)? Thank You with all my heart for all what You do with Your videos. MD S.Mazak Beslic, Serbia

    1. I don’t believe there’s data for cannabis’s role in cancer treatment beyond symptom management for the most part. There is some minor evidence for its use with brain tumors, but I haven’t seen breast cancer data. The Oncology Nutrition group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is spotlighting a session on “Marijuana: Is it Medicine Yet for Cancer Symptom Management?”. It will be interesting to see where alternative treatments can advance cancer research. I like your point about lots of raw foods in the diet, as of course nutrition can play such an important role in cancer prevention and treatment.

    1. Hi Rodrigo. Wow — this is incredible! Did you make this site? I let our Program Director know and we’ll look into this more. I agree the more languages the better! Thanks so much for letting us know!

      Best regards,

      1. Hi Joseph! I’m very pleased to read you. Yes I did make this website. I’m in contact with Tommasina and I’m very glad to have you guys there. Please keep inspiring us.

  8. Rapidly dividing cells -like cancer -uses up a lot of cholesterol but I am still not seeing the causative connection between cancer and cholesterol. Its like saying cancer cells need lots of water and oxygen which is also true -but there is no causative connection -other than statistical -which could be for any number of other reasons

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