Cancer is scary and affects most of us, either directly or indirectly. It is a complex condition with possible causes including poor diet, environmental toxins, genetics, infections, viruses, stress, tobacco use, lack of exercise and more. While no one knows the exact cause of cancer, the World Health Organization states that 30-50% of all kinds of cancer can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle and dietary considerations.
The foods you eat can protect against or increase your risk of certain cancers. While there are plenty of “cancer fighting foods,” there isn’t one single super food that can protect you from cancer. Instead, the overall synergy of compounds in your diet offers the strongest protection against cancer.30-50% of cancer can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle. Start eating to prevent #cancer today! #saslife Click To Tweet
The nutrition recommendations for cancer prevention are very similar to those for maintaining overall health and preventing other chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Check out the 7 cancer prevention tips below and start eating to lower your cancer risk today!
1. Eat plenty of anti-inflammatory foods.
Inflammation plays a critical role in cancer development and progression as well as many other chronic diseases. Aim to consume 4-5 cups of brightly colored vegetables and 1-2 servings of whole fruit daily (no fruit juice, you’ll read why in a bit) to help ensure a generous supply of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that will help lessen the risk of developing cancer. If you’re thinking “how in the world will I ever eat that many vegetables in one day?” don’t worry, it can be done! Find out how.
- Processed carbohydrates
- Refined fats and oils
- Margarine, buttery spreads, shortening
- Processed meats
- Fried foods
- Brightly colored fruits and vegetables
- Dark, leafy greens
- Certain spices like turmeric, ginger and garlic
- Omega-3 fats
- and many more!
Read more about anti-inflammatory foods here.
Note About Refined Fats & Oils
The typical Western diet contains 20x more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. The overconsumption of industrially processed oils extracted from soybeans, corn, rapeseed (source of canola oil), cottonseed and safflower seeds (and the processed foods that contain them) combined with the lack of omega-3 rich foods creates a pro-inflammatory state.
Increasing intake of omega-3 rich foods (cold water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel; walnuts and flaxseeds) and other whole food sources of fats (avocado, good quality olive oil, nuts and seeds) can help reduce inflammation and risk for cancer and other chronic diseases. Find out more truth about fats.
2. Avoid processed foods as much as possible.
Processed foods are often full of added sugars, refined oils and processed carbohydrates - all of which can lead to inflammation and, in turn, increased cancer risk. These foods are also generally calorie-dense and nutrient-void, adding to your waistline while leaving little room for healthy, cancer fighting foods.
Get the “rubbish” out of your food! Food additives and preservatives are often added to processed foods to prolong shelf life and enhance the appearance and flavor of foods. These ingredients have a possible role in cancer risk so it’s best to avoid them whenever possible.
Skip the boxed stuff and try making your own versions at home. Homemade is often cheaper, almost always tastes better and is most certainly better for your health. But start small so you don’t get overwhelmed trying to make everything from scratch!
3. Reduce intake of added sugars.
By avoiding processed foods, you’ll by default also reduce your intake of added sugar. Sugar feeds every cell in your body (even cancer cells) but sugar does not directly “feed” cancer. Instead, it’s the indirect effects of overconsuming sugar (increased weight and belly fat, higher insulin levels and related growth factors, etc.) that puts you at a higher risk for developing cancer.
Avoid sugary drinks and limit foods high in sugar, keeping added sugar to less than 5% of your total daily calorie intake (about 6 teaspoons). And yes, this does include fruit juices. Once you extract the juice from multiple pieces of fruit to make one glass of juice, you end up with a glass of “sugar” which is why it is considered an added sugar.
4. "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
Michael Pollan hit the nail on the head with this statement! Easier said than done though, right? The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends filling ⅔ of your plate with a variety of unprocessed plant foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds) and ⅓ of your plate with animal foods (meat, fish, poultry and dairy). Now, this doesn’t mean you need to become a vegan, it just means you should share the spotlight with plant-based foods.
When choosing produce, purchase organic when possible to reduce your exposure to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides which can have carcinogenic properties. Use the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen Guide to help decide which foods have the highest (and lowest) pesticide content.
It’s important to remember that we don’t know which specific component of plant-based foods are the most protective against cancer, so be sure to consume a wide variety of whole foods. Again, it’s the overall synergy of your diet that offers the strongest protection against cancer.
Check out this list of Foods that Fight Cancer.
5. Moderate meat consumption and avoid processed meats.
Studies have shown that eating 50gm of processed meat daily (equivalent to about 4 strips of bacon or 1 hot dog) or 100gm of red meat daily (equivalent to about the size of a deck of cards) increases risk of multiple cancer outcomes with no correlated benefits.
If you currently consume red meat (beef, pork, lamb, veal), you don’t necessarily need to cut it out completely because it is a good source of protein, iron, zinc, B12 and other nutrients. Instead, limit intake of red meat by eating smaller portions, incorporating more fish and chicken and having more meatless meals using beans or lentils. Plus, by eating more vegetables, fruits, intact whole grains and legumes, you’ll likely already be reducing your red and processed meat consumption.
Avoid processed meats (hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, some deli meats) as much as possible. Meat is considered processed if it has undergone treatment for flavor enhancement or preservation such as adding salt or sodium nitrate to prevent the growth of germs or smoking to preserve/enhance color and flavor. When you do have processed meats, get the highest quality ones you can without nitrates or nitrites.
As often as possible, choose grass-fed, pasture-raised and wild-caught animal products. This will help reduce antibiotic exposure and provide higher levels of vitamins, minerals and omega-3 fats. When cooking meats, avoid cooking over high heat which can lead to the production of heterocyclic amines (HCA) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) which can be carcinogenic.
6. Limit alcohol intake.
Alcohol use is the third leading modifiable factor that increases cancer risk. Research indicates that the more alcohol a person drinks (especially if consumed regularly over time), the higher the risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer. According to this study, an estimated 741,300, or 4.1%, of all new cancer cases in 2020 were attributable to alcohol consumption.
Alcohol increases the risk of cancer by:
- Metabolizing ethanol to acetaldehyde (a toxic chemical and probable carcinogen).
- Generating reactive oxygen species which can damage DNA, proteins and lipids through oxidation.
- Impairing the body’s ability to break down and absorb a variety of nutrients that may be associated with cancer prevention (vitamin A, folate, vitamin D, carotenoids, etc.).
If you consume alcohol at all, do so in moderation. This means no more than 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men. A serving is equivalent to 5oz of wine, 1.5oz of liquor, or 12oz of beer. However, consuming even less than one drink per day has been found to increase the risk of several types of cancer – so when it comes to cancer prevention, it is best to not drink alcohol at all.
7. Find your healthy weight.
Approximately 4-8% of all cancers are associated with being overweight or obese. While research has not yet established a direct cause-and-effect relationship between obesity and cancer, there is consistent evidence that higher body fat is associated with an increased risk of multiple types of cancer.
Obesity is linked to increased cancer risk for several reasons including:
- Higher levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IFG-1) which can promote the development of certain tumors.
- Chronic low-level inflammation (see more on this above in Tip #1).
- Increased metabolic activity of fat cells which generate hormones and produce inflammatory factors which can accelerate the growth of cancer cells).
By following the previously discussed tips, you will (likely) be able to find your healthy weight. It’s important to remember that everyone’s “healthy weight” is different. Find and maintain the weight that you and your healthcare provider are comfortable with, without becoming too lean or underweight (which carries its own set of health risks).
And of course, be physically active daily (at least 30 minutes of moderate activity) and don’t smoke. But those aren’t kitchen tips 🙂
Roasted Honeynut Squash Kale Sauté
This cancer-fighting dish was inspired by the adorable honeynut squash I ran across at Trader Joe's. My first thought was "honey, I shrunk the squash"...butternut squash that is! Honeynut squash is a combination of butternut and buttercup squash varieties and while they may be small, they are packed with sweetness and loaded with beta-carotene!
2 honeynut squash*, cubed (from about 1.5lbs whole honeynut squash)
1 tsp olive oil
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
¼ tsp salt
Pinch of black pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 large red onion*, quartered and sliced
3 cloves garlic*, minced
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
6 cups thinly sliced kale*, center ribs removed (from about 1 bunch of kale)
1 medium apple*, cubed
½ cup slightly broken up walnuts*
Salt and pepper, to taste
- If you can’t find honeynut squash, you can substitute other winter squashes like butternut or acorn squash.
- You could also use ⅓ cup dried cherries*, dried cranberries* or pomegranate seeds* instead of the apple.
* = Cancer fighting foods!
Click links above to read more about each individual food.
1. Preheat oven to 425⁰F. Place cubed honeynut squash in a bowl and toss with 1 tsp olive oil, 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.
2. Spread onto a lined baking sheet and roast in the oven for 25 minutes or until the squash is cooked through and browned on the edges.
3. While the squash is roasting, prep the other ingredients (wash and cut onion, kale, apple, etc.).
4. About 15 minutes into roasting the squash, heat 1 Tbsp olive oil on medium heat. Add sliced red onion and toss to coat. Cook 7-8 minutes or until softened and starting to caramelize. Add minced garlic and cook 1 minute more.
5. Add 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, apple and kale. Stir until kale is mixed well (tongs work great for this). Cook for a few minutes until the kale is just wilted.
6. Stir in walnuts and roasted honeynut squash and add salt and pepper, to taste.
7. Serve with chicken, pork tenderloin, salmon or any other protein and enjoy!