As a dietitian who’s worked with challenging patient populations, I’ve always thought I was well-equipped to handle things if my own loved one were to ever become ill. But when my father was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer at the age of 61, I turned my life upside down to help care for him and quickly realized I had a lot to learn.
Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
As a health care practitioner, I’m hesitant to use the phrases “foods that prevent cancer” or “cancer preventative foods” (you can be doing everything right, and shit still happens sometimes), but research shows some diet approaches can play a supportive role in cancer risk reduction.
— Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN
I was 31 at the time, and while I was generally a healthy eater because of my profession, I was a bit more concerned with how to eat healthy at the airport and what foods could reduce hangover symptoms than I was about longevity and disease risk. It had been a long time since I’d revisited the nuances of nutrition for cancer risk reduction. Sure, I’d grown up watching relatives struggle with various types of the disease, but I’d actively avoided working in oncology early in my career because it felt too traumatizing.
However, when my dad passed away after a 15-month cancer journey which I detail in my new book, I actually found myself called to work in the cancer world. I couldn’t change my family’s history, but I could move forward with intention, and I could help others learn about risk reduction and about how to improve their well-being throughout treatment and beyond using diet and lifestyle modifications. Today, this is a huge part of the work I do.
While it’s true that there is a genetic component to some cancers, a whopping 30 to 50 percent of cancer cases can be attributed to lifestyle risk factors, such as alcohol consumption, a diet low in fruit and vegetables, being overweight, physical inactivity, and tobacco smoking, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). As a health care practitioner, I’m hesitant to use the phrases “foods that prevent cancer” or “cancer preventative foods” (you can be doing everything right, and shit still happens sometimes), but research shows some diet approaches can play a supportive role in cancer risk reduction.
5 Anti-Cancer Diet Healthy Eating Tips
Eat a plant-forward Mediterranean-style diet.
If your hope is to follow an anti-cancer diet, a Mediterranean style of eating will be your best bet. Ideally, you’ll fill two-thirds of your plate with plant-based foods, such as fiber-rich whole grains, pulses (beans, peas, lentils), fruits, and vegetables, according to recommendations from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). These foods are rich in fiber, which research shows is important for digestive regularity, weight management, and blood sugar control, all of which are important for cancer risk reduction. Fruits and vegetables, in particular, also provide a range of antioxidants that can play a protective role when consumed regularly. The remaining one-third of your plate goes to animal products, though seafood and poultry and small amounts of dairy are recommended over red and processed meat, according to the AICR recommendations. (Related: What Is the Mediterranean Diet, Really?)
Health experts also recommend choosing healthy fats, such as olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocado, and oily fish, and limiting trans fats and fried foods, and ultra-processed foods, such as packaged chips, cookies, and similar products. Having enough healthy fat is important for satiety, nutrient absorption, heart health, blood sugar management, and brain function. However, unhealthy fats have been tied to inflammation, and chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage that can lead to cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). It’s also worth noting that most ultra-processed foods are generally high in calories, sugar, fat, and simple carbohydrates and lack nutrients that may help reduce cancer risk.
For the record, you can also give soy a place in your diet. If you’ve been avoiding soy because you saw social media posts claiming that soy causes breast cancer, you can rest easy and enjoy some edamame or tofu. A lot of this confusion comes from plant compounds called isoflavones found in soy, which are phytoestrogens, meaning they behave similarly to the hormone estrogen. (Being exposed for a long time or to high levels of estrogen is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer in women, according to the NCI.) While animal studies found that rodents who took high doses of isoflavones had an increased risk of breast cancer, human studies haven’t produced similar effects, according to the American Cancer Society. Some studies suggest that consuming soy foods (think: tofu, edamame, tempeh, miso, and unsweetened soy milk) may even lower breast cancer risk. That said, it’s best to limit soy supplements, as there isn’t enough data to confirm their safety, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Limit red meat and processed meat.
Studies have linked red meat and processed meat to increased risk of certain cancers, especially colorectal cancers. Processed meat is anything that has undergone curing, salting, fermentation, smoking, flavoring, or other processes that preserve it or enhance its flavor. This usually applies to red meat (defined as any mammalian muscle tissue — so beef, veal, pork, lamb, mutton, goat, and horse), but poultry and fish may also be processed. Examples of processed meat include bacon, sausage, hot dogs, cured and smoked meat, and deli meat.
Research suggests that nitrates and nitrites, which are preservatives in processed meats, produce compounds that can cause DNA damage, and that cooking red meat at high temperatures causes chemicals to form which can lead to DNA mutations that can contribute to cancer, according to the NCI. A diet high in saturated fat (red meat and processed meat generally have higher levels of this type of fat) is also associated with increased cancer risk, though the current consensus is that eating moderate amounts of saturated fat “does not pose a health risk within a balanced diet,” according to a review of studies published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.
In 2015, the WHO classified processed meat as a Class 1 Carcinogen, meaning that there is “convincing” evidence that they cause cancer. Red meat was classified as a Class 2 Carcinogen, meaning that an association has been observed between high intake and increased colorectal cancer risk but that other factors in this observation couldn’t be ruled out.
The AICR recommends limiting red meat intake to moderate amounts (currently defined as 12 to 18 ounces per week) and consuming processed meat as infrequently as possible.
Limit added sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages.
I often hear people repeat a common misconception that sugar “feeds” cancer. Currently, there are no studies that show that you eat sugar and then cancer happens, but there is an indirect link. If someone chronically eats enough added sugar to the point where they experience weight gain, an increase in fat tissue and estrogen may increase cancer risk.
I’m a big believer in choosing your moments to indulge in what you love. Have cake on your birthday, savor a favorite holiday treat, enjoy an occasional ice cream outing or sweet coffee drink — whatever feels worth it to you. I suggest trying to limit added sugar in everyday foods where it really doesn’t belong. Scope labels on products, such as cereals, yogurt, condiments, and granola bars, and choose products with smaller amounts of added sugar when possible. Because they have a similar effect on blood sugar, I also generally recommend limiting fruit juices and ideally pairing vegetable juices with something that provides fiber and protein — or better yet, enjoy fruits and vegetables in smoothie form with other ingredients to make it a balanced meal or snack.
Nobody likes hearing this one, but it’s been well established that alcohol is a modifiable cancer risk factor. Approximately 3.5 percent of cancer deaths in the United States can be attributed to alcohol, with the strongest association with breast, colorectal, esophageal, liver, and head and neck cancer, according to the NCI. In some cases (including breast cancer), even light drinking has been shown to increase risk.
Many health care providers recommend limiting alcohol intake to three or fewer alcoholic drinks (three servings) per week for cancer risk reduction and not start drinking if you don’t currently consume alcohol. As a reminder, one serving of alcohol is equivalent to approximately 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, and 1 to 1.5 ounces of a distilled spirit, so keep in mind that a more generous pour or cocktail with several types of alcohol may “count” as more than one drink. (Related: How My Life Changed for the Better When I Quit Drinking for a Month)
Maintain a healthy weight over time.
Research links being overweight or obese with various types of cancer. In fact, excess body weight is responsible for an estimated 11 percent of cancers in women and five percent of cancers in men in the United States, according to the ACS.
If you’re not sure what a healthy weight is for your body, talk to a trusted health care provider. And if you’re working towards a weight loss goal, remember that sustainability (and sanity) are really important. For those who aren’t at a healthy weight for their body, a weight loss of 0.5 to 2 pounds of weight loss per week is considered a safe, sustainable amount. Rather than following a super-restrictive diet or punishing workout routine, take a small-step approach that allows you to establish healthy new habits that will support weight maintenance when you do reach your goal. Seek the assistance of a registered dietitian if needed to come up with an individualized plan that works for you.
How to Incorporate an Anti-Cancer Diet Approach
Diet is a really important piece of the cancer risk reduction picture, but it’s also important to be physically active, protect yourself against the sun, refrain from smoking, and limit exposure to environmental toxins. If you’re reading this and feeling like, “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff I need to change,” start with one or just a few small things and take it at whatever pace you need. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, have a conversation with your doctor about your personal risk and what modifications would be most impactful for you.