A well-balanced, healthy diet is a great defense against all sorts of health problems and illnesses. But what about against cancer? A quick Google search for “cancer-fighting foods” pulls up pages of content claiming that specific nutritional choices can help you keep cancer at bay. Of course, we understand how a nutritious diet can help keep our internal and external systems running smoothly and healthily. Fighting cancer, though, is a whole different ball game. Here, we explore if your diet can actually impact your cancer risk.
Foods That Increase Your Cancer Risk
Before we jump into whether nutrition can help you fight cancer, let’s talk about the flip side: whether the foods you eat can actually increase your cancer risk.
The answer is yes. “According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), there are two dietary constituents that are considered carcinogenic to humans: processed meats and alcohol,” says integrative oncologist Jonathan Stegall, M.D., medical director of the Center for Advanced Medicine.
First, processed meats. “Processed meats include those that are cured, salted, or smoked, including sausage, bacon, hot dogs, pepperoni, and beef jerky,” Dr. Stegall says. “Regular consumption of processed meat was found to increase the risk of colorectal cancer.” Experts believe that nitrates and nitrites—the preservatives used in processed meats—increase the risk of cancer.
Next, alcohol. “Regarding alcohol, excessive consumption has been linked to a variety of cancers, including liver, breast, colorectal, esophageal, head, and neck,” Dr. Stegall says. While most experts recommend consuming alcohol in moderation to keep your risk of cancer low, many are starting to lean toward abstinence as the best solution. “There are more and more experts recommending that individuals not consume any alcohol if they want to reduce cancer risk as much as possible,” Dr. Stegall notes.
Processed meats and alcohol are the only items actually proven to increase cancer risk. However, experts suspect there are a number of others that have cancer-causing properties. “There are also some substances considered likely carcinogenic, but studies have not conclusively proven their cancer-causing abilities,” Dr. Stegall says. “These include red meat, especially charred meats; microwave popcorn; nonorganic produce, primarily those containing the herbicide glyphosate; canned foods; and sodas.”
Foods That Decrease Your Cancer Risk
As to whether foods can help decrease your cancer risk, the answer is probably. “Studies have not proven that any specific foods are anticancer,” Dr. Stegall says. “However, there is good evidence that nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains play a pivotal role in reducing cancer risk.”
You know you should eat your vegetables, but here’s another reason. “A plant-based diet delivers excellent protective properties against cancer [thanks to a] high concentration of phytochemicals,” says San Diego–based internist Reyzan Shali, M.D., author of Teaming Up Against Cancer: Simple, Powerful Ways to Beat the Odds and Take Your Life Back. “Phytochemicals are molecules that directly interfere with the progression of cancer cells. [They] change the environment around cancer cells, making it more hostile for these cells to grow. And [they] boost the body’s defense mechanisms against cancer.”
If you want to decrease your risk of cancer, incorporate plenty of antioxidant-rich, plant-based foods into your diet. Try these:
- Dark, leafy greens (such as spinach or kale)
- Whole grains
According to Dr. Shali, the Mediterranean diet is ideal for reducing cancer risk—as long as you load up on plenty of fresh fruits and veggies. “Whole fruits and vegetables should fill up the majority of your plate—50 percent or more. Aim for a variety of colors on that half of the plate,” Dr. Shali advises. “Your meal should also include 25 percent protein, mainly from fish, chicken, beans, and nuts. [You can fill] up to 25 percent of the plate with whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice.”
So, what’s the final verdict?
“The evidence connecting diet to both causing and preventing cancer is overwhelming and cannot be ignored. Studies show us that up to 75 percent of all cancers in the United States can be prevented by altering lifestyle factors such as smoking and diet,” Dr. Shali says. “Poor diet accounts for about 30 percent of cancer deaths—the same percentage caused by smoking. Therefore, a change in diet can make an earth-shattering difference in cancer prevention.”
If you want to lower your cancer risk, the key is finding balance with your nutrition. “Eat unprocessed, or at least minimally processed, foods whenever possible. Avoid sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, artificial colors/flavors, and other preservatives and unnecessary added ingredients,” Dr. Stegall says. “If [you’re] consuming foods that aren’t so healthy, do so in moderation.”