American College of Nutrition Certified Nutrition Specialist | Author | Professor of Nutrition


Cancer, Part 2: the barnyard is happy

Sugar   boy eating a carrot

We’ve talked about sugar and cancer, and while it seems nearly impossible to eliminate all glucose from our blood stream to “starve” the cancer, we don’t want to give it any extra fuel either.

That doesn’t mean we should eliminate all carbohydrates from our diet. We should avoid refined grains and added sugars when we are concerned about cancer growth. These foods not only spike our blood sugar, but our body releases a lot of insulin when we eat them to get their sugars out of our blood and into our cells. Cancer cells use insulin very aggressively to grab sugar, and we want to get by with as little insulin released as possible.


In an effort to reduce sugars and lower blood glucose, many people start eating more “protein” foods that come from animals, such as chicken, eggs, cheese, and meat. The problem with this strategy is that our body releases as much insulin when we eat meat as when we eat white bread. Yikes!

Eating animal products not only triggers a significant release of insulin, it also raises our risk of developing and growing cancer. This is true for all types of cancer for which we have data. Even lean meat, organic chicken, “nitrate-free” processed meats, low-fat cheese and the seemingly innocent egg.

Its not just the fat, although the saturated fat in animal products does play a role.

Eating animal products increases the amount of inflammatory compounds in our bloodstream. Cancer uses these inflammatory compounds to help it grow and invade new tissues.


The hormone IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor-1) is one of the hormones cancer cells use to grow, and is abundant in animal products. The more animal products we eat, the higher the circulating amount of IGF-1 in our blood.

Cholesterol is another cancer promoter. Cancer cells take up a lot of cholesterol from the LDL in our blood and use it to make hormones necessary to grow and invade neighboring tissues. The more animal foods we eat, the more LDL is in our blood.

Melatonin is a hormone that signals our body it is time to sleep. It also seems to put cancer cells to sleep. The more animal products we eat, the lower our melatonin production. We want any cancer cells in our bodies to be very sleepy.

The bovine growth hormone in dairy foods and choline in eggs are also cancer promoters. Eating just 2.5 eggs per week increased the risk of dying from prostate cancer by 81%.


Finally, lets talk about what the microbes in our intestines do with the animal products we eat. They make a lot of a compound called TMA. TMA contributes to inflammation and is a potent cancer promoter. The more animal products we eat, the more TMA producing microbes live and thrive in our guts. The more plants we eat, the fewer of those TMA producing bugs live in our guts, reducing inflammation.

So maybe you are thinking you’d like to eat fewer animal products, and wondering how you can get enough protein without animal foods? It seems like a big problem but really its not. Very few vegetarians are protein deficient. Beans, nuts, whole grains, vegetables, and soy all provide lots of protein while protecting us against cancer.

We can dive deep into soy in another newsletter. There is no need to avoid soy foods. In fact soy is protective against cancer, even cancers of the breast.

Draining and rinsing a can of beans, then adding them to a salad or pasta or stir-fry, is an easy protein boost. I often make bean and grain salads for dinner and make sure I have plenty for lunch through the week. Even if you choose plant-based proteins half of the time, you are making a significant positive impact on your health.

Cells go through three stages before they are officially cancerous. Initiation, the first stage, is the initial DNA damage. Cells can stay in this stage indefinitely, never causing us any harm. The second stage is Promotion, where the cells wake up and start to become active. The third is Progression, where they divide rapidly, spread and evade our immune system.

We need to remember that most of us may have at least a couple dormant, damaged cells that could potentially become cancerous. The goal is to keep them dormant, so they do no harm.

I hope you are ready to try some plant-based meals. You can check out the Recipes section of my website for lots of easy options. My other plant-based food blogs are Minimalist Baker and Oh She Glows.

Let me know about your experiments in plant-based eating. I can’t wait to hear what you love. Enjoy!

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