Cancer, diabetes, and vegans

A post from EH: “Recently I have been hearing about a link between dairy protein and diseases such as cancer and diabetes. What are your thoughts on this and can a vegan diet be healthy for small children?”

I haven’t seen any good data that supports a strong link between dairy products and either cancer or diabetes. The press likes to report things as if there is a single cause—a “smoking gun”—that’s the root cause of these problems, it’s unlikely that either disease is the result of one kind of food or exposure. As with many health conditions, they’re complex, poorly understood, and difficult to sum up for a 45 second sound bite on the news.

Nonetheless, this is the Pediatric Insider site, and I’m going to take a stab at it: in 45 seconds, what are the best ways to prevent cancer and diabetes?

Cancer is primarily a disease of aging—in fact, if you live long enough, you will eventually get cancer (for men, prostate; for women, breast: these cancers are almost invariably found in autopsies of people who die past 100 years of age.) So a very effective way to avoid cancer is to die of something else first. If that’s not your cup of tea, try these other ideas:

  • Don’t smoke, and avoid environmental smoke exposure.
  • Avoid excessive sunlight—but get enough vitamin D.
  • Eat a diet rich in plants and low in animal products.
  • Vaccinate to prevent cancer of the liver (a consequence of hepatitis B) and cervical cancer.
  • Limit alcohol intake.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Be mindful if cancer runs in your family, and get screened appropriately to catch cancer early.

Diabetes comes in two varieties, though at times the distinction between the two is unclear. In general, though, type I diabetes is a disease of youth, and no intervention has been effective at preventing it (many ideas have been studied; none have really panned out.) Type II diabetes is far more common, and is in general a disease of adulthood. To prevent it:

  • Eat a diet rich in plants and low in animal products.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Exercise regularly.

Notice how diet and weight control are on both lists? So, though I can’t say that dairy protein is a specific cause of either cancer or diabetes, a healthful diet needs to include more plant-based foods, and should not contain as much high-calorie, high-fat animal products. Dairy isn’t something that needs to be avoided completely, but should be consumed in moderation as part of a child’s diet.

EH asked if a vegan diet can be healthy for small children. Many vegetarians consider call themselves “lacto-ovo,” meaning they consume dairy products and eggs. Lacto-ovos can get plenty of protein and vitamins and iron from these sources, and it is not difficult to ensure that children on a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet get all of the nutrition they need. Strict vegans do not consume animal products of any kind, and it is difficult especially for children to get enough protein, calories, and micronutrients (especially iron, vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin B12) on a strict vegan diet. Families who wish to raise their children on a vegan diet should consult with a dietician with experience in this area to ensure that everyone in the family gets the nutrition they need.

A vegetarian diet may not be for everyone, but adjusting the family diet to include more plants and fewer animal sources can be a healthy way to decrease your child’s risk of cancer and diabetes.

Edit: Can you believe it, just a few hours after I published this, I found a study reviewing the evidence for the use of vitamin D supplementation to prevent type 1 diabetes! It looks like some good evidence, though the effect isn’t strong it is probably real. So: you still need to avoid sunburns, but getting enough vitamin D via supplementation or sunlight can help you and your children prevent cancer and diabetes.  Cool.

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