Does a Vegetarian Diet Reduce Breast Cancer Risk?

Volume 14    |   Issue 51

What type of cancer kills more women than any other? If you think it's breast cancer, you need to think again. Although breast cancer is the most common cancer for women, more women die from lung cancer than from breast cancer. No one wants to get either form of cancer. And most women are more scared of getting breast cancer. But is there a special diet that can prevent breast cancer? The answer might surprise you.

The fact is that the studies that have looked at the connection between diet and breast cancer have mostly looked at individual foods rather than overall diets. For example, a high soy intake is definitely associated with a lower risk of breast cancer. But when it comes to fruits, vegetables, meats, and fats, the results are inconclusive. So, recently researchers published a study that took a different take on the issue. Instead of just evaluating certain foods, they took a look at the overall patterns of the diets. Here's what they did.

The researchers questioned 50,404 women as to what foods they ate. Depending on their answers they put them either into a classification of vegan, lacto-ovo-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, or non-vegetarian. The classifications went as follows.

  • Vegan — Intake of egg, dairy or meat products is less than once per month
  • Lacto-ovo-vegetarian — Intake of fish, poultry, and red meats was less than once per month and their intake of eggs or dairy products was more than or equal to once per month.
  • Pesco-vegetarian — Intake of fish was more than once a month, while red meats and poultry were consumed less than once per month, but no constraints on dairy products or eggs.
  • Semi-vegetarian — Intake of red meats, poultry, or fish was more than or equal to once per month, but less than once per week.
  • Non-vegetarian — Intake of red meat, poultry, or fish was more than or equal to once per week.



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Once they made the classifications, the researchers tracked the women over a five-year period to see which ones developed breast cancer. The group turned out to have 26,193 women classified as vegetarians. This included the sum of all the vegetarian categories mentioned. The number of non-vegetarians was a little less and came to 24,211. The vegetarian group had 478 cases of breast cancer. The non-vegetarians had 414 cases. Even though the cancer rate was less in the non-vegetarian group, the difference was so small as to be statistically non-significant. The authors concluded that, "As compared with non-vegetarians, all vegetarians combined did not have a significantly lower risk." And when they looked at the various subcategories of vegetarians, such as vegans, lacto-ovo, and pesco-vegetarians, they still did not find a statistically significant difference between any of the vegetarian groups and the non-vegetarian group.

I like this study as opposed to other population studies. In this case, instead of asking the women if they were vegetarian or not, they determined the categories based upon what they actually ate. This makes the study much more accurate. Secondly, the study group was very large and they followed them for five years. This gave them enough data to have statistical significance. And I think it underlines a really important point.

Vegetarian diets including vegan diets are often promoted as being a much healthier way to eat than a nonvegetarian omnivore diet. But, as this study shows, that's not necessarily true. But why? One reason is that vegetarian diets usually include more carbohydrates than regular diets. And the more carbohydrate in the diet the greater the statistical risk of breast cancer.

So if you want to avoid breast cancer (and many other cancers), focus on cutting your carbohydrate intake, not your meat intake.

Yours for better health,





Penniecook-Sawyers JA, Jaceldo-Siegl K, et al. Vegetarian dietary patterns and the risk of breast cancer in a low-risk population. Br J Nutr. 2016 May 28;115(10):1790-7.

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