Can you get pancreatic cancer on a vegan diet?

Brent R. Stockwell, Ph.D.
2 min readMar 3, 2023


A new paper in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the quality of food in a plant-based diet is correlated with risk of pancreatic cancer.

Plant-based diets have been associated with better health, including lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and various cancers. However, many studies comparing plant-based diets with animal-based diets don’t consider the quality of food in a plant-based diet.

This new study examined the incidence of pancreatic cancer in over 100,000 people.

The authors examined the correlation of an overall plant-based diet with the risk of pancreatic cancer, but also a healthy plant-based diet and an unhealthy plant-based diet.

As expected, the overall plant-based diet was associated with a 26% reduction in the risk of pancreatic cancer compared to an animal-based diet.

However, when they examined the correlations of a healthy or unhealthy plant-based diet, they found striking results. A healthy plant-based diet was associated with an even better outcome — a 44% reduction in the risk of pancreatic cancer. But an unhealthy plant-based diet was associated with 38% increase in the risk of pancreatic cancer.

Thus, simply categorizing one’s diet as plant-based is lumping together healthy and unhealthy foods. It is more important to eat a healthy plant-based diet than simply a plant-based diet.

The authors used the Healthy Eating Index to determine the quality of the food in the plant-based diet.

Basically, healthy foods are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and foods with polyunsaturated (PUFAs) and monounsaturated (MUFAs) fats. Unhealthy foods are fruit juices, foods with added sugar, and foods high in saturated fats.

Saturated fats and high levels of sugar generally promote inflammation, which is associated with pancreatic cancer. PUFAs and MUFAs are associated with less inflammation. Interestingly, PUFAs also promote ferroptosis, whereas MUFAs suppress ferroptosis. Ferroptosis is generally tumor suppressive, as a form of cell death. Thus, I wish the authors had categorized the amount of PUFAs and MUFAs in the diet separately, so we could see if MUFAs promote or suppress pancreatic cancer.

In summary, eating plant-based foods alone is not a panacea, at last for reducing the risk of pancreatic cancer in this study. Food quality is always important, even if you eat primarily plant-based.

Broccoli fighting a hamburger
Food quality is important, even on a plant-based diet (created with DALL·E)



Brent R. Stockwell, Ph.D.

Chair and Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University. Top Medium writer in Science, Creativity, Health, and Ideas