Mechanisms for the impact of whole grain foods on cancer risk

J Am Coll Nutr. 2000 Jun;19(3 Suppl):300S-307S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2000.10718964.


Dietary guidance recommends consumption of whole grains for the prevention of cancer. Epidemiologic studies find that whole grains are protective against cancer, especially gastrointestinal cancers such as gastric and colonic, and hormonally-dependent cancers including breast and prostate. Four potential mechanisms for the protectiveness of whole grains against cancer are described. First, whole grains are concentrated sources of dietary fiber, resistant starch, and oligosaccharides, fermentable carbohydrates thought to protect against cancer. Fermentation of carbohydrates in the colon results in production of short chain fatty acids that lower colonic pH and serve as an energy source for the colonocytes. Secondly, whole grains are rich in antioxidants, including trace minerals and phenolic compounds, and antioxidants have been proposed to be important in cancer prevention. Thirdly, whole grains are significant sources of phytoestrogens that have hormonal effects related to cancer protection. Phytoestrogens are thought to be particularly important in the prevention of hormonally-dependent cancers such as breast and prostate. Finally, whole grains mediate glucose response, which has been proposed to protect against colon and breast cancer.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Antioxidants
  • Diet*
  • Digestive System
  • Edible Grain*
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal
  • Fermentation
  • Humans
  • Insulin / blood
  • Isoflavones*
  • Neoplasms* / epidemiology
  • Neoplasms* / prevention & control
  • Obesity
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Plant Preparations
  • Risk Factors


  • Antioxidants
  • Estrogens, Non-Steroidal
  • Insulin
  • Isoflavones
  • Phytoestrogens
  • Plant Preparations