Research Suggests Plant-Based Diets May Help Protect Against Breast Cancer

John Egan - The Upside Blog

by | Updated: October 3rd, 2022 | Read time: 4 minutes

New research suggests that adopting a vegan diet might help ward off breast cancer, the most common type of cancer among American women.

The research, presented at a June 2022 meeting of the American Society of Nutrition, showed a healthy plant-based diet was tied to a 14% lower risk of breast cancer, while an unhealthy plant-based diet was connected to a 20% higher risk of breast cancer. For this study, researchers combed through data for over 65,000 postmenopausal women who were tracked for more than two decades.

The study hasn’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal, meaning its findings are preliminary.

Woman Grabbing Apple From Fruit Bowl Following Plant Based Diet and Cancer Prevention Advice

What is a plant-based diet?

Lead author Sanam Shah, a doctoral candidate in the Center for Research in Epidemiology and Population Health at Paris-Saclay University in France, notes that a plant-based diet does not necessarily equate to a vegan or vegetarian diet. Rather, a plant-based diet prioritizes plants. A vegan diet, on the other hand, eliminates all meat and animal products (meat, poultry, fish, seafood, dairy and eggs). Meanwhile, a vegetarian diet includes dairy products and eggs but excludes meat, poultry, fish and seafood.

All that being said, both a vegan diet and a vegetarian diet can qualify as a plant-based diet.

Shah’s study differentiated between healthy plant-based foods like whole grains, fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, vegetable oils, and tea or coffee, and less healthy plant-based foods such as fruit juice, refined grains, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts.

Plant based diet and cancer research 

The French study underscores growing evidence that vegan and vegetarian diets can help prevent various types of cancer. Vegans appear to have the lowest rates of cancer among all kinds of diets, followed by vegetarians, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The Cancer Nutrition Consortium says a plant foods help fight cancer because they’re low in calories and loaded with fiber, vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, they’re packed with plant nutrients that deliver antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and detoxifying properties.

However, Dr. Neil Iyengar, a medical oncologist at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer, says on the hospital’s website that there’s not enough solid evidence “to conclude that vegan eating is superior to a semi-vegetarian diet for reducing the risk of cancer or cancer recurrence.”

As it pertains to breast cancer, research does hold promise for the value of vegan, vegetarian and plant-based diets:

  • One study showed that compared with non-vegetarians, women who adhered to a vegan diet demonstrated a lower risk for breast cancer, “but it was not clear whether the association occurred by chance or from other influences,” according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
  • Research published in 2021 in the journal Nutrients indicates healthy plant-based diets might improve the survival of breast cancer survivors.
  • Compared with women who have normal weights, postmenopausal women who are obese have a 20% to 40% greater risk of breast cancer, according to the Maurer Foundation, which promotes breast health. A vegan diet might help a woman lose weight and maintain weight loss, contributing to a possible reduction in breast cancer risk.
  • A research analysis published in 2020 showed that women who consumed the most fiber had an 8% lower risk of breast cancer, the Maurer Foundation says. A vegan diet tends to be high in fiber, thereby potentially aiding the fight against breast cancer.

Dr. Hana Kahleova, director of clinical research at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, co-authored a study published in 2022 by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that found weight loss among obese adults was associated most with an increased intake of legumes and a decreased intake of meat, fish and poultry.

“Our research shows that the best way to improve the quality of your health is to improve the quality of the foods you eat,” Kahleova says in a news release. “That means avoiding animal products and eating a vegan diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains and beans.”

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