To fight cancer, improve your diet

February 15, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So

One in a series of articles about how to reduce the risk of cancer ...

You can't control your genes, but you can take charge of what’s on your plate. So for National Cancer Prevention Month, give your meals and snacks a nutritious makeover; not only will you look and feel better, but you'll lower your risk of several cancers.

City of Hope experts recommend "eating a rainbow" of fruits and vegetables to get a variety of healthy—and cancer-fighting—nutrients (Photo credit: Thinkstock) City of Hope experts recommend "eating a rainbow" of fruits and vegetables to get a variety of healthy — and cancer-fighting — nutrients (Photo credit: Thinkstock)

“It is estimated that half of all breast cancers, a third of lung cancers and three-fourths of colorectal cancers could be prevented with healthier diets,” said Peggy Mancini, M.S., R.D., a clinical dietitian at City of Hope.

As an added perk, a cancer-fighting diet will also reduce the risk of heart diseases and diabetes, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association).

Here's some food for thought to help you make healthier food choices:

  • Go plant-based. This means eating primarily fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. “The American Cancer Society, National Cancer Institute and American Institute for Cancer Research all recommend this,” Mancini said, citing two dietary regimens in particular — Mediterranean and DASH — that are rich in plant foods and are linked with lower cancer risk.
  • Limit red and processed meats. “Intake of red meats should be limited to two to three 3-ounce servings a week, and processed meats — such as bacon, sausage, ham and hot dogs — should be avoided altogether,” Mancini said. For protein, the American Cancer Society recommends fish, poultry and beans or, if choosing red meats, at least opting for leaner cuts.
  • Go easy on alcohol. Although there is some evidence showing red wine’s potential to lower cancer risk, overall alcohol consumption has been linked to increased cancer risk. The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics said women should limit themselves to one drink per day, and men should stop at two drinks.
  • Cut down on junk food. This includes foods high in calories, fat and sugar and low on nutrients. Not only do these foods promote weight gain — and obesity is linked to higher risk of multiple cancers — but they also crowd out healthier foods that can lower cancer risk.
  • Mix up your diet and incorporate some “superfoods.” “I enjoy when latest superfoods studies are published because they encourage us to incorporate new and nutritious foods into our diets,” Mancini said, adding that while some foods may be more nutrient-dense than others, the key is to incorporate a wide variety of healthy items into the diet. A useful guide is to “eat a rainbow” of different plants, since the assorted colors signify different phytochemicals that can fight cancer and other diseases.

Lastly, Mancini cautioned, dietary supplements are not a substitute for a poor diet. Although they're helpful for specific deficiencies, she said, “nutrients generally work best together and food is the best way to provide a wide variety of these nutrients. Nutrients through supplements may not be utilized as well as when they are consumed as part of a wholesome diet ... so I’d aim first for improving a diet that is less than perfect.”


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