Can this controversial diet really prevent cancer?

By Charlie Williams
Published September 23, 2020

Key Takeaways

Could eating omega-3-rich seeds, soaking up sunshine, and taking nature walks be the answer to winning the battle against cancer? These are a few of the concepts behind the Budwig diet, an unorthodox regimen developed in the 1950s by German pharmacist, physicist, and biochemist Johanna Budwig, PhD.

Dr. Budwig’s approach remains controversial, with debate tending to break along traditional and alternative views of how to prevent and treat cancer, a disease that continues to take a heavy toll. According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 1.8 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020, with a projected 606,520 dying from the disease.

In this article, we’ll explore the benefits and risks of the Budwig diet for cancer prevention and recovery.

What is the Budwig diet?

The basis of the Budwig diet is that omega-3 fatty acids in pressed flaxseed (linseed) oil, if absorbed by our cells, could stop cancer cells from growing. Dr. Budwig theorized that a mix of low-fat milk, the sulfur protein in cottage cheese or quark (a type of soft, low-fat curd cheese), and pressed flaxseed oil creates a chemical reaction, making the oil water-soluble and easily absorbed by cells. The mix must be eaten within 20 minutes. Fruit, nuts, and honey can be added to make the mixture more palatable.

The diet allows fruit, vegetables, and fiber, but excludes sugar, most dairy products, shellfish, refined grains, tea, and coffee (although Dr. Budwig was big on coffee enemas). The regimen also includes 20 minutes per day of sun exposure to increase vitamin D levels, as well as nature walks. Dr. Budwig contended that these habits strengthen the immune system.

Benefits to cancer patients include the omega-3 in flaxseed, which contains lignans (phenolic compounds frequently found in fiber-rich plants like flax) and phytoestrogens (plant-derived compounds found in soy and other foods). Both are thought to have anti-cancer and hormonal impacts.

According to Budwig Center Germany, the Budwig diet is a time-tested natural cancer protocol. The organization’s site underscores the importance of proceeding with caution through the cancer journey, because many go-to cancer experts are “self-appointed” and do not have the proper information, nor the real “hands-on clinical experience” of treating cancer. The Budwig diet, on the other hand, has helped “literally thousands of people all over the world with every type of cancer,” the site claims.

However, all of the shortcomings that Budwig proponents allege are rampant in modern cancer care are also characteristic of the Budwig diet itself. It doesn’t have the support of any renowned medical experts and hasn’t been substantiated in clinical trials.

Risks of the Budwig diet

While there haven’t been any harms directly tied to the Budwig diet, it hasn’t shown any proven cancer-fighting benefits either.

According to an article in The ASCO Post, while epidemiologic data suggest an association between lactovegetarian diets and a lower incidence of gastrointestinal cancer, the Budwig diet hasn’t been evaluated in clinical trials, so it’s unclear whether the diet brings that same association.

“The Budwig Diet is based on the hypothesis that cancer develops as a result of decreased oxygen uptake by cell membranes in the absence of omega-3 fatty acids. Although metabolic changes such as increased aerobic glycolysis and fatty acid synthesis occur in cancerous cells, the role of omega-3 fatty acids in the pathogenesis and treatment of cancer is not known,” the authors wrote.

New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Medical Center labels the Budwig diet “an unproven anticancer treatment,” adding the basis of the diet is the theory that “cancer is caused due to reduced uptake of oxygen by cell membranes in the absence of omega-3 fatty acids,” although the role of omega-3 fatty acids in the “pathogenesis of cancer treatment is still under investigation.” Moreover, restricted diets such as Budwig’s “can cause severe nutritional deficiencies” and, most importantly, “delaying or avoiding standard medical treatments can have serious consequences.”

On its website, the Budwig Center Germany singles out Memorial Sloan-Kettering as a source “you should not trust,” claiming that the institution’s goal is to “seed doubts about the incredibly successful Budwig protocol.” This is despite the fact that the health system’s bona fides run deep. It has ranked either first or second in the nation for cancer care by U.S. News & World Report since the inception of the rankings more than 30 years ago, and has supported the publication of tens of thousands of scientific studies in the last decade.

The ASCO Post article acknowledges that there is continued interest among patients seeking alternatives to conventional treatments. “Clinical evidence, however, is currently lacking to support the use of this diet for the treatment or prevention of cancer,” the authors wrote.

Despite its lack of scientific support and nearly non-existent popularity in clinical circles, a crop of popular cancer informational and support sites have thrown weight behind the Budwig diet, citing claims from purported health experts like Dr. David Jockers and Dr. Josh Axe. However, these two health pundits—who claim that the diet can help decrease the risk of developing cancer and support cancer recovery—never went to medical school (they’re both naturopathic doctors), often tout pseudoscientific approaches to health, and are heavily involved in e-commerce, casting doubts about their credibility. The FDA even issued a May 1, 2020 warning letter to Dr. Jockers directing him to stop selling unproven “cures” for COVID-19.

What the research says about the Budwig diet

Still, the Budwig diet aligns with scientific evidence in several key areas.

Benefits of vitamin D. Overexposure to vitamin D through sunlight or supplements increases the risk of many ailments, including skin cancer, but research suggests adequate vitamin D can help prevent cancer, among other risks.

Flaxseed and cancer. Several studies have shown that flaxseed can reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. Some clinical trials have shown that flaxseed may have an important role in decreasing breast cancer risk, mainly in postmenopausal women. Other experimental data suggest that consumption of flaxseed (or its bioactive components) may reduce colorectal cancer.

Spending time in nature. Studies have shown that spending time in nature (also called “forest bathing”) can significantly reduce blood pressure, as well as levels of serum cortisol, a stress biomarker. It’s unclear whether stress plays a direct role in mitigating or aggravating cancer risk, but common coping mechanisms, including drinking alcohol, smoking, and overeating, have all been positively associated with increased cancer risk.

The takeaway

The Budwig diet may be “time-tested,” but it’s not scientifically tested. Most proponents of the diet vouch for its anti-cancer effects either anecdotally or on dubious grounds. Despite this, several aspects of the diet align with scientific study, including its recommendations to enjoy outdoor time in moderation and incorporate flaxseed as part of a balanced diet.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter