Can what you eat really make a difference in whether you get cancer? Many experts agree that making better choices about what you put on your plate is one way to thwart the cell changes, or mutations, that can lead to cancer.
Each year, doctors diagnose 1.4 million new cases of cancer in this country. These cancers don’t just one day “appear.” It can take years before normal cells become cancerous. Scientists think that during this time we may have many chances to put a halt to cancer’s progression. One way may be by eating a healthier diet, which, experts say, may prevent up to 30 percent of cancers.
But what to eat? In the years ahead, scientists may be able to pinpoint exactly which nutrients—and how much of them—you personally need to fight specific cancers. Until then, they suggest, eat a variety of healthy foods and keep calories within limits.
1. Eat to stay lean. If you’re overweight, you’ll cut your risk of cancer by trimming excess pounds. Fill up on vegetables, salads and lower-calorie soups and stews featuring vegetables and legumes. Cut back on foods high in fat, sugar and calories—downsizing your portions can help. Avoid alcohol (which may also increase your risk of certain cancers). Trade apple fritters for apples and learn the calorie content of foods you eat regularly. Your nightly bowl of ice cream can contribute more than 300 calories of sugar and fat. Making that a Saturday-night-only treat can save you 2,000 empty calories each week.
2. Pick produce. Eat a diet high in fruits and vegetables (at least five or more a day). They are packed with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help strengthen your immune system and fight free-radical damage in your body that may lead to cancer. Vitamins A, C and E and the mineral selenium are potent cancer-fighters. Some chemicals in plants may suppress cancer, such as:
- indoles and isothiocyanates in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy and kale
- carotenoids, which give plant foods their pigment, including lycopene found in tomato products, watermelon, red peppers and pink grapefruit; beta-carotene found in yams, carrots, cantaloupe and pumpkin; and lutein found in leafy greens like spinach and collard greens
- organic allyl sulfur compounds in garlic and onions (including chives, scallions, leeks and shallots)
- resveratrol in red grapes and some berries
- anthocyanins and ellagic acid in cranberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries
3. Factor in fiber. Countries whose populations eat high-fiber diets report lower cancer rates. Despite inconclusive studies, most experts recommend that you up your intake of fibrous foods, including fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains such as oats and barley. In addition to fiber, these foods contain other substances that can help reduce your cancer risk.
4. Watch the fat. Government guidelines suggest you get no more than 30 percent of your calories from fat, which translates to about 53 grams of fat for a 1,600-calorie diet. (Some experts recommend you reduce your intake of fat to no more than 20 percent.) Cut back on saturated fat found in animal sources and trans fatty acids found in processed foods (listed as “partially hydrogenated oil” on nutrition labels). Increase omega-3 fats, which may suppress tumors; these fats are found in cold-water fish like salmon and sardines, plus walnuts and flaxseed. Select low-fat sources of protein such as lean fish, skinless poultry breasts and legumes. Add extra virgin olive oil in moderation to your salads and cooking—some say its healthy mix of vitamin E, phytochemicals and antioxidants may prevent certain cancers—but watch total calories.
5. Be adventurous. Don’t fall into the trap of eating broccoli every day. Instead, focus on flavor and variety. And beware unbalanced diet plans that claim to “cure” cancer. No single food can protect you from cancer, but a varied, plant-based diet may, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. Compounds in foods may work together to fight cancer most effectively. Many other substances exist in foods that may fight cancer’s formation, and scientists predict that many more have yet to be identified. What’s more, a nutrient found ineffective at preventing one type of cancer may still be useful in blocking another. So explore the produce aisle and try something new when you go out to eat.
Nutrients in foods fight cancer by:
- destroying free radicals that damage DNA, which can lead to cancer
- helping to eliminate carcinogens (cancer-causing substances)
- blocking the activation of carcinogens
- inhibiting carcinogenesis, the disease process that leads to cancer