The incidence of hormone-dependent cancers, such as those of the breast and prostate, is much lower in Eastern countries such as China and Japan in comparison with the Western world. Diet is believed to have a major effect on disease risk and one group of compounds, the phyto-oestrogens, which are consumed in large amounts in Asian populations, have been implicated in cancer protection. This view follows the finding that plasma and urinary levels of phyto-oestrogens are much higher in areas where cancer incidence is low in comparison with areas of high cancer incidence. The phyto-oestrogens are comprised of two main groups; the isoflavones and lignans. Of the isoflavones, genistein and daidzein have been the most widely studied. These compounds have been shown to possess anticancer properties; however their precise mechanism of action remains to be elucidated. In comparison, few studies have investigated the effects of lignans in breast and prostate cancer. In vitro studies have shown that genistein exerts biphasic effects on cancer cell growth, stimulating growth at low concentrations (<10 microm) and inhibiting growth at high concentrations (>10 microm), which suggests that low phyto-oestrogen levels may stimulate cancer growth in vivo. Plasma phyto-oestrogen concentrations of >10 microm cannot be achieved by dietary intake and therefore the timing of exposure to phyto-oestrogens may be of the utmost importance in determining their chemopreventive effects. The present paper reviews the effects of phyto-oestrogens on breast and prostate cancer in vivo and in vitro and discusses possible mechanisms of action via which these compounds may exert their effects.