Diet and Cancer: An Ounce of Prevention and a Pound of Cure

by karen on February 15, 2018

Millions of us are expected to be diagnosed with cancer this year.  Not a happy thought, but the power of a healthy diet and healthy foods can help lower our risk of developing cancer as well as fight the disease if we are diagnosed.

As much as 50% of our risk of getting cancer can be related to diet.  Cancer occurs when carcinogens, (cancer-promoting substances), enter the body, sometimes from food.  It takes years for a tumor to develop, and during this time, compounds known as inhibitors can help keep cancerous cells from growing.  Vitamins and nutrients in plant foods (phytonutrients), are known to be inhibitors.  Dietary fat, on the other hand, is known to be a promoter that helps abnormal cells grow quickly.  

A cancer-preventing diet is essentially high fiber and low fat.   It is suggested we get 25-40 grams of fiber daily. Though it is not known for certain how fiber prevents cancer, it probably involves fiber’s ability to move food more quickly through the intestines to help eliminate cancer-promoting carcinogens, drawing water into the digestive tract so carcinogens are diluted, and creating a more acidic environment, which is cancer-protective.  The best sources of fiber are fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.

Plant-based foods are naturally low in fat, high in fiber, and contain many cancer-fighting substances.  Carotenoids are the pigments that give fruits and vegetables their color and protect against cancers.  Vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts contain flavones and indoles that are anti-cancer.  Vitamins A, C, E and B2, and minerals zinc, selenium, copper and manganese are antioxidants that protect cells from damage.  Other phytochemical antioxidants include lycopene, lutein and lignin.

Simple ways to maximize your odds of preventing cancer through diet include eating at least 5 servings of fruits and veggies, and 4 or more servings of whole grains and legumes daily.  These foods provide the anti-cancer nutrients noted above and promote stronger immune systems that attack and neutralize cancer cells.

Foods to limit, or ideally avoid, include red meat, especially processed meats like bacon and lunchmeat,  sugary drinks, fast food, fried food and salty foods.  If you plan to maintain a diet containing animal foods, choose lower fat items, including fish and seafood, poultry without the skin, lean red meats and nonfat or low-fat dairy.  Get small amounts of healthy unsaturated fats from nuts, seeds, avocado, and olive oil, and avoid saturated fats from meats, cheeses, butter and creams (sour cream, cream cheese, whipped cream and the like).

If you develop cancer, continuing your healthy ways will get your through with fewer side effects and better outcomes.  Strong nutrition habits during cancer treatment will boost the immune system, help combat symptoms of treatment, improve the body’s ability to digest food and absorb the healthy nutrients contained within, and improve the body’s beneficial response of cancer treatment.

Karen Fisher, MS, RDN, CDE is a dietitian in Reno, Nevada, happily promoting the benefits of healthy foods at her nutrition consulting firm, Nutrition Connection.  Find her website at

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