Which Dietary Factors Affect Breast Cancer Most?

Image Credit: Lev Kropotov © 123RF.com. This image has been modified.

How to Cut Breast Cancer Risk in Half

One of my favorite cancer-specific charities, the American Institute for Cancer Research, lauds the China Study and the documentary Forks Over Knives, with which they share the same bottom-line message: The healthiest diets are those that revolve around whole plant foods.

They then translate that advice into their Ten Recommendations for Cancer Prevention, featured in my video Which Dietary Factors Affect Breast Cancer Most? We now have evidence that those who follow such advice are actually protected against cancer. Breast cancer risk was reduced by 60% in women who met at least five recommendations compared with those who met none. The most important dietary advice was to be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight, eat mostly foods of plant origin, and limit alcoholic drinks.

What about other cancers? Greater adherence to the AICR dietary guidelines was also associated with significantly less endometrial, colorectal, lung, kidney, stomach, oral, liver, and esophageal cancer. In other words, adherence to dietary recommendations for cancer prevention may lower the risk of developing most types of cancer. The drop in bladder cancer did not reach statistical significance, but a larger follow-up study following 469,000 people for 11 years (the largest to date) found that just a 3% increase in the consumption of animal protein calories was associated with a 15% higher risk of bladder cancer, whereas just a 2% increase in plant protein was associated with a 23% lower risk.

AICR recommendation number ten is that cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention. The same diet that can help prevent cancer in the first place can be used to help save our life after diagnosis. Adherence to the guidelines for cancer prevention was found to be associated with lower mortality among older female cancer survivors for breast cancer and other cancers in general.

A cancer diagnosis is considered a teachable moment to get people eating and living healthier. Oncologists revel at the growth in the number of cancer survivors in this country, now ten million strong and growing. It’s great that those with cancer are living longer, but even better to prevent it in the first place so we can all live longer. Not only does adherence to the guidelines lower cancer risk, but it also extends our lifespan because the guidelines are also significantly associated with a lower hazard of dying from heart disease and respiratory disease, suggesting that following the recommendations could “significantly increase longevity.”

Just like eating to prevent cancer helps to prevent heart disease, eating to protect our heart helps prevent cancer. It sounds self-evident, but adherence to a healthy lifestyle is therefore associated with a lower risk of mortality overall. And the more healthy behaviors we have, the longer we get to live. Such factors include not smoking, walking every day, or eating green leafy vegetables almost daily.

To help differentiate the effects of diet from other lifestyle behaviors, like smoking and drinking, on cancer incidence, Adventists were recently compared to Baptists. Both discourage alcohol and tobacco, but the Adventists go further, encouraging a reduction of meat. In general, the Adventists had lower cancer hazard rates than the Baptists, and within Adventist populations, the vegetarians did even better, and those eating the most plants did the best.

Why do plant-based diets appear to lower the risk of cancer? A number of fascinating mechanisms:

Specific to breast cancer:

Though plant-based beverages may be harmful: Breast Cancer and Alcohol: How Much Is Safe?

In terms of foods associated with breast cancer survival, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations—2013: Uprooting the Leading Causes of DeathMore Than an Apple a Day2014: From Table to Able: Combating Disabling Diseases with Food, 2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not To Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.

Image Credit: MesserWoland


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.

22 responses to “How to Cut Breast Cancer Risk in Half

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  1. The Adventist Health Study published a PDF table summarizing which foods were associated with reduced/increased risk of various cancers.

    FRUIT: Reduced risk of prostate, lung, pancreatic, possibly ovarian cancers
    LEGUMES: Reduced risk of colon, prostate and pancreatic cancers
    TOMATOES: Reduced prostate and ovarian cancer
    SOYMILK: Reduced prostate cancer
    MEAT: Increased risk for colon, bladder and ovarian cancer


    1. Can anyone comment on the reduced risk associated with dried fruit consumption for prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer and colon polyps? Why would dried fruit, specifically, show an association? Is it just easier to increase fruit consumption overall by eating dried fruit?

      1. I bet you’re thinking along the right track, lemonhead. I know of no reason why dried fruit is any healthier than fresh, but I do know how easy it is to eat more fruit when it is dried. In fact the other day while munching on a big handful of grapes, I thought about how if these 20 grapes were raisins, they’d be gone in a second in one mouthful.

  2. Looked up American Institute for Cancer Research:
    Charity Navigator gave it 1* out of 5 as half the revenue goes to fundraising.
    Their transparency however was excellent; no reviews on quality of programs.

    Pity because I’m looking for a cancer org to refer those in my circle at-that-age.
    Not quite dropping like flies but headed that way.

  3. Hi Dr. Greger, I am reading your book, “How Not to Die” reads like a great novel, and I am moving too fast in it — but no problem, I will just read it again. So I have to return your book to the library tomorrow, am I going to, NO! Will get more days. I was brought up Seventh-Day Adventist, and we did eat meat in our home (my parents were newly SDA) until the time I was 18 — then I went vegetarian, and not long after that, when my father got cancer, my parents also got off of meat eating. Then after several years, I went vegan — my husband and I have both corrected several health problems through being strict on what we eat, cutting out all animals products. One of the most astounding things in your book that I didn’t know was meat in the kitchen and fecal bacterial. Wow, now I don’t even wash a plate my cats eat their food on, I just put down wax paper for them to eat on and then throw it away so no bacteria in our sink or dishes anymore. What a great tip! Yes, there is a whole world of food out there that does not depend on cruelty to animals and perverted appetites — and if people do not want to die young, they need to read your book, take it to heart both figuratively and literally. My friend, just 2 days ago died in her early 50’s. I tried very hard to give her the health message, but she continued dairy products and drinking so much milk every week. She had a stroke, and gone too early because she would not listen. SDA people know better than to eat meat, and have know it for years, but many unfortunately still will not read the health message that Ellen G. While wrote over 100 years ago, and what you are writing now, confirming the new and old information – eating animals is cruel and in this day and age totally unnecessary with all the new food options we have available. I applaud you, because when you go, your life had been full of meaningful purpose for millions so they will live longer and better lives — now that’s a life that matters! You are in my prayers everyday and hoping your will live a long, long time. I pray for your conversion to Christ Jesus – the rest of the health story.

    1. What a message, Deb! Thanks for sharing. I’ve been an SDA all my life, however I gained way too much weight after having babies – and have kept it on PLUS more! I have type 2 diabetes, heart disease runs in my family – had triple bypass surgery 7 years ago, and 3 1/2 years ago got breast cancer (stage 2, triple positive). I’ve been a vegetarian for a little more than 30 years, but have not given up dairy – and I SO NEED TO and I KNOW I will beat this thing. I BELIEVE in the health message with all my heart and I am overjoyed hearing about Forks over Knives, Dr. John McDougall & Dr. Greger – all these people recognizing what we GREW UP WITH! Your message, Deb, has inspired me. Thanks again!

  4. Can anyone comment on WFPB being able to impact brain cancer? I would love to able to show my family member that there is hope through eating this way; so far, his doctors have told him cancer doesn’t care what he eats…ugh. He’s also heard that a ketogenic diet could be helpful for this kind of cancer, so he eats ‘grass fed, organic’ beef. Thanks for any insights I could pass along.

    1. Heidi,
      I understand your frustration. There is a lot of well-researched literature on the impact of diet on various cancers, but not much literature on diet and brain cancer. In general, a WFPB diet can improve cancer survival rates. Have you check out http://www.cancerproject.org or one of Dr Greger’s multiple videos on cancer, Dr. Greger’s video http://nutritionfacts.org/video/anti-angiogenesis-cutting-off-tumor-supply-lines/. Also, I highly recommend anyone who is diagnosed with cancer to visit Dr. Ralph Moss’s website http://www.cancerdecisions.com. Dr. Moss (like Dr. Greger) spends his time scouring literature, but specific to cancer treatments. Based on his research, he recommends various types of treatment (surgery, radiation, chemo, and/or alternative treatment, etc.) based on the type of cancer. He has a report specific to brain cancer.

      I hope that helps!

    2. As Stephanie said. The American Brain Tumor Association certainly seems convinced that a WFPB will help.

      Also, a calorie restricted WFPB diet may be an option. The Life Extension Foundation summarised studies to date on the ketogenic diet and calorie restricted diet approaches to this disease. The evidence however is weak, and mostly from mouse studies, but might be worth considering.

      1. Tom, thanks very much for clarifying the ketogenic premise for me. This is all pretty new to me, so your links and insights mean a great deal to me. Will do my research and hopefully be able to share with my affected family member. Again, many thanks!

    3. Heidi – My family member also had brain cancer, astrocytoma grade II. There is some new research on using polio virus injected into the tumor to “compete” with the cancer cells. It’s premise is very interesting and I won’t go into it here. But the FDA is fast-tracking the therapy. It seems to be helpful to some and not so much to others. But to the ones it has helped, the survival time is increased.
      Duke University is working on this research program.

      You may also want to look at the work of Valter Longo, Ph.D., University of California, Davis.

      He has been researching fasting. . .which seems counter intuitive at first with cancer. His research shows that fasting prior to chemotherapy appears to reduce the damage to the body while allowing the chemo to do it job more effectively. It appears that the fasting allows healthy cells in the body to go into “hibernation mode” (so to speak). The cancer does not go into hibernation mode and thus uptakes the chemo more selectively/effectively while the healthy bodily cells do not uptake while in hibernation. This is what appears to be the early research and he is working on cancer trials now using fasting-chemo protocol. It also seems that fasting allows the immune system to reset itself by killing off old immune cells and allow the body to recreate new immune cells. He has many videos on YouTube which will give you much more information on his work.
      Another you might read is Michael Mosely, M.D. who writes about fasting. He is not plant based but he shares much information about how fasting affects the body in healthful ways. His book is The Fast Diet. Worth the read.

      I wish you and your family all the best. Have patience and love.

      1. Rachel, thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful, informed reply. I’ll definitely look at the links, YouTube videos and the book you mentioned. Fasting is already of interest to me because of what I’ve learned about it through the work of Dr. Goldhamer and Dr. Klapper at True North in Santa Rosa, CA (www.healthpromoting.com). Patience and love…thanks for that! The love part is easy, but I’m a work in progress on patience! All the best back to you and your family, as well. Thanks again!!!

  5. Dr. Greger, I followed your advice in your book, How Not to Die, for 13 months and after loosing 36 pounds I believed I was doing well, until I had my annual physical. My blood pressure was 160/110, I have hypothyroidism, and I have also developed rheumatoid arthritis from eating the night shade veggies, which only made everything much worse. I am now taking 12 pills a day, including supplements prescribed by my primary care physician to help get my system back on track. I am no longer as strict with your diet plan. For 13 months I only gave in the slightest bit, 4 times. Now I question your honest to goodness diet plan and consider modified changes to your approach.

    1. Hi Kevin
      Are you saying eating fruit, vegetables, legumes, grains, seeds and nuts made you sick? Any chance you had some health issues prior to eating WFPB? And I have never read a study demonstrating that night shade vegetables cause RA. That would be interesting.

    2. I would be interested in hearing what your health measurements (blood pressure, thyroid, weight, diabetes? etc) were before you made your dietary changes. It’s impossible to ascertain which direction your health went without a measurable baseline beginning. (This is, after all, a science-based site). Some people are sensitive to nightshades and if that is the case here, then eliminating them to see if you feel better will give you that feedback of course. One can still do that on a WFPB diet. Your hypothyroidism may have contributed to your weight gain pre-WFPB diet. I have many questions in my mind that I would want to see answers to before I would draw the conclusion that Dr. G. lifestyle plan caused so many issues.
      I sincerely hope your health moves forward in a positive direction..

    3. Has the book been out that long? Hypothyroid may be due to an iodine deficiency if you don’t eat sea vegetables regularly or supplement. I wonder if all the kale smoothies and salads increase the requirement for iodine. If you take iodine supplements make sure you’re getting selenium.

      1. Interesting question Wegan. I looked it up. Dr. Greger’s book was published December 8, 2015. Today’s date, October 5, 2016. So it has not been out one year yet.

  6. We recently read your book and have made most of the dietary changes you recommend. We feel great! I have a question about soy though. I understand how beneficial a moderate amount of soy can be for women. What about children? A friend recently cautioned me against giving my child soy milk instead of cow’s milk, or tofu instead of steak. She said that the estrogen like hormones in soy can have negative consequences for boys in particular. Are there studies to back this up? Is it safe for children to eat a moderate amount of soy?

    1. SVT: Congrats on making some healthy changes! As for soy being unhealthy for children: Traditional soy products like tofu and tempeh have not harmed the millions of people in countries where the foods are common. Dr. Greger did a review on this subject and settled on 3 to 5 servings of traditional soy products as being healthy for people (with no exclusion for kids): http://nutritionfacts.org/video/how-much-soy-is-too-much/
      Also note that NutritionFacts has a video (and article I think) showing that eating soy throughout a girls life is *protective* against breast cancer. This does not specifically address your question about boys, but it shows one way in which we know that traditional soy products are healthy for children. And I can’t think of any reason that say 3 servings of soy a day wouldn’t be healthful for boys too. http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-effect-of-soy-on-precocious-puberty/ In the link before this sentence, soy helped girls and did not affect boys. And you can see in the following topic page for soy (highly recommend!), soy does not affect fertility for boys: http://nutritionfacts.org/topics/soy
      Why do I keep saying “traditional”? Because this happy news about soy does not apply to highly processed foods with soy in them (for example, veggie dogs with soy protein isolate).

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