In 2024, the American Cancer Society (ACS) predicts that more than 2 million new cases of cancer will affect Americans. Further, 600,000 Americans will die from cancer. While astronomical, these numbers are slightly lower than ACS’s predictions for 2023, a dip it attributes to factors such as lower smoking rates, earlier preventative measures, and better treatments.
What else can we do to get that number down? A growing body of research points to plant-based diets as a way to reduce the risk of certain cancers. However, Roxanne Becker, MD—medical editor and educator from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM)—points out that the ACS report does not include this dietary recommendation in its latest report.
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“Processed meat has been categorized as a Group 1 carcinogen by the World Health Organization since 2015, and yet bacon and hot dogs are still served in many hospitals and schools,” Becker said in a statement. “We need to do better.”
The rise in colorectal cancer rates among younger demographics particularly highlights the need for dietary reevaluation.
“Our research shows that the best way to improve the quality of your health is to improve the quality of the foods you eat, and that means avoiding animal products and eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, and beans,” Becker said.
Studies show the power of plants to fight cancer
A multitude of studies have shown how eating plant foods, while avoiding animal products, can be a way to slash the risk of certain cancers, including breast, prostate, digestive, and colorectal cancers. These are just a few of the most recent findings.
1Slashing prostate cancer risk
In a study published in the medical journal Urology, researchers analyzed data from 1989 to 2022, indicating that plant-forward diets could aid in preventing and managing male urologic conditions such as benign prostatic hyperplasia, erectile dysfunction, and prostate cancer—the second most common cancer in men.
The systematic review considered 24 eligible studies out of an initial 346, revealing a beneficial relationship between plant-based diets and reduced risks of these conditions.
This research builds on previous studies, including a 2021 study published in the same journal, that points to the protective properties of plants against prostate cancer.
Conversely, a study published in 2022 and conducted at Loma Linda University for more than 20 years found that men who consume about 1¾ cups of milk had a 25-percent higher risk of prostate cancer compared to those consuming significantly less dairy.
2Halting prostate cancer progression
In addition to its preventative properties, new research suggests a plant-based diet can significantly reduce the progression and recurrence of prostate cancer in men already afflicted by the illness.
This study involved a systematic review of 2,038 men with early-stage prostate cancer and found that those with the highest intake of plant-based foods had a 52-percent lower risk of disease progression and a 53-percent lower risk of recurrence.
3Lowering digestive cancer risk
Researchers at Shandong University of Traditional Chinese Medicine analyzed data from more than 3 million subjects across multiple studies, finding significant protection against cancers like pancreatic, colorectal, gastric, liver, and esophageal cancer in those following a plant-based diet.
Conversely, the study noted that diets high in red or processed meats are associated with an increased risk of these cancers, in line with WHO classifications.
4Milk and meat’s cancerous link
In another study, DNA molecules called bovine meat and milk factors (BMMFs), found in beef and cow’s milk, were linked to the development of colorectal cancer—the fourth most common cancer in the US. This study—which builds upon a 2014 discovery identifying BMMFs as potential infectious agents—conducted a comparative analysis of tissues from individuals with and without colorectal cancer.
It revealed differences in BMMF-encoded protein expression, particularly in immune cells in inflamed, precancerous tissues. This research suggests the potential of using BMMF detection as an early risk marker for colorectal cancer.
On the flip side, a 2022 study by Kyung Hee University found that men who consume high amounts of plant-based foods have a 22 percent lower risk of colorectal cancer, but no similar association was observed in women.
5Processed meat and cancer
The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, or EPIC, study suggests that an unhealthy Western diet, characterized by high-fat dairy products and processed meats, could increase the risk of developing aggressive prostate cancer.
The research assessed the diets of 15,296 men in Spain, categorizing them into Western, Prudent, or Mediterranean patterns. The Western dietary pattern, defined by high consumption of meat and dairy along with refined grains, sweets, caloric drinks, convenience food, and sauces, was found to be detrimental, particularly for aggressive tumors.
A 2022 study from Tufts University and Harvard University also links high consumption of ultra-processed foods, especially meat, poultry, and fish, to increased colorectal cancer risk in men. This latter study, covering over 200,000 participants over 25 years, showed men with high ultra-processed food intake had a 29-percent increased risk of colorectal cancer, a connection not found in women.
“Processed meats, most of which fall into the category of ultra-processed foods, are a strong risk factor for colorectal cancer,” Lu Wang, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, said in a statement.
“Ultra-processed foods are also high in added sugars and low in fiber, which contribute to weight gain and obesity, and obesity is an established risk factor for colorectal cancer,” Wang said.
6Slashing overall cancer mortality
This study, conducted by La Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and Harvard T.H. Chan School, examined the impact of a Mediterranean lifestyle on mortality, particularly from cancer.
Analyzing 110,799 UK Biobank cohort members aged 40 to 75, the research used the Mediterranean Lifestyle (MEDLIFE) index to assess participants’ food consumption, dietary habits, and physical, rest, and social activities.
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The findings revealed that adherence to a Mediterranean lifestyle led to a 29-percent reduction in all-cause mortality and a 28-percent decrease in cancer mortality over nine years.
The study suggests that adopting a Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, including whole grains, fruits, limited salt intake, and healthy social habits, can benefit health even outside the Mediterranean region.
The Healthy Hospital Chef Challenge
Since its inception, PCRM has been using the latest scientific findings to help consumers make healthier food choices, including through its Vegan Kickstart program. PCRM also supports various initiatives to help get plant-based food into schools and hospitals, where cancer prevention initiatives can have the greatest impact.
This August, the International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine, sponsored by PCRM, will feature The Healthy Hospital Chef Challenge. This event, in partnership with the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), aims to showcase the role of plant-based nutrition in healthcare settings.
“I’m so excited to highlight the talented culinary innovators leading the way in plant-based nutrition within the healthcare system with this chef challenge,” Dustin Harder, chef and culinary specialist with PCRM, said in a statement.
The challenge, open to chefs and cooks in healthcare facilities, focuses on creating 100-percent plant-based entrées. Entries will be evaluated for nutritional value, originality, and visual appeal. Brooklynne Palmer, MD, MPH; Shawn Matijevich of ICE; and Emmett McDonough, executive chef at Sodexo NYC Health + Hospitals, will be among the judges.
The competition underscores the growing awareness of the benefits of plant-based diets in medical settings and as preventive measures for illnesses, including certain types of cancer.
“As hospital systems are becoming more aware of the benefits of a plant-based diet, institution menus are evolving to offer more healthful options for patients, and the chefs competing in this challenge are on the front lines of making that change a reality,” Harder says.