Your Mom Is Wrong: Your Vegetarian Diet Did Not Cause Cancer

I recently was told by my doctor to go see a doctor at the Cancer Institute to be tested for cervical cancer. When I told my mother she freaked out and told me my vegetarian diet was to blame, and that all the soy in my diet was the leading cause of all of this. Could diet lead to cervical cancer?

—D. from New Mexico

[Have a question about women’s health? Ask Dr. Gunter yourself.]

There is no data linking cervical cancer with a vegetarian diet or soy intake.

Dietary soy doesn’t increase the risk of any cancer.

The most common type of cervical cancer is squamous cell carcinoma. This cancer is almost exclusively caused by infection with human papillomavirus (HPV). The second most common type of cervical cancer is adenocarcinoma, and approximately 70 percent of these cancers are caused by HPV. It is important to know that HPV is very common, so much so that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (C.D.C.), almost all sexually active people will get the virus at some point in their lives.This is why the HPV vaccine is the best way to prevent cervical cancer. Condoms also help reduce exposure to HPV.

There isn’t much data on the link between diet, HPV and cervical cancer. Dietary carotenoids and vitamin C may help reduce cancer risk, and limited data suggests low folate levels might increase risk. There are a lot of mights and maybes here, so concluding that a specific food or diet has a role in reducing the risk of cervical cancer is not possible. However, eating a diet high in vegetables and getting enough dietary vitamin C and folate is beneficial for many health reasons.

Studies that look at diet and disease risk often have many challenges and can be open to misinterpretation. However, there is data to suggest that a Western diet, which is high in ultraprocessed food and alcohol is associated with an increased risk of some cancers, although cervical cancer had not been identified as one of those cancers.

I’m sorry this is happening to you. Hearing that you needed to get tested for cervical cancer must have been scary and the testing can be hard for many people. Now that we have cleared up your mother’s misconceptions about HPV and diet, I hope she can get onboard supporting you in the ways that you need.

Dr. Jen Gunter, often called Twitter’s resident gynecologist, is teaming up with our editors to answer your questions about all things women’s health. From what’s normal for your anatomy to healthy sex and clearing up the truth behind strange wellness claims, Dr. Gunter, who also writes a column called The Cycle, promises to handle your questions with respect, forthrightness and honesty.