While you cannot change your hereditary cancer profile, you can take steps to reduce your risk of developing certain types—and following a cancer-prevention diet is one of them. It’s pretty amazing to know that the foods you eat can influence your risk for developing a serious disease like this one. The vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in a healthy diet can play a big role in fending off cell mutations, causing cancer cell death and more. It makes you think twice about what you’re grabbing for lunch, right? The optimal cancer-prevention diet will change as research evolves, but based on current science, following these dietary recommendations will minimize your cancer risk.
Eat Plenty of Produce
A diet rich in vegetables and fruit is good for you in so many ways—including helping you prevent cancer. Aim for eight to 10 servings of vegetables and fruit per day, and the more colorful your selections, the better. The pigments that make produce so vibrant—like those in blueberries, pomegranates, carrots and kale—are rich sources of phytonutrients that, among other things, improve the response of the immune system and inhibit an enzyme that aids in the proliferation of cancer cells.
Switch to Whole Grains
Getting enough fiber has been shown to help reduce the risk of certain cancers including colorectal and hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast and prostate. Adults should consume 25 to 40 grams of fiber per day. You can increase your intake by swapping all of your white carbohydrates (bread, rice, pasta) for versions that are made with whole grains—look for the words “made with 100 percent whole grains.” They are not only chockfull of fiber, but antioxidants that can help protect you from the effects of free radicals, atoms that damage or kill cells. To beat boredom, try adding new grain options like oats, quinoa and amaranth to your cancer-prevention diet, too.
Seek Out Soy
You may have thought twice about eating too much soy, but studies have failed to show a relationship between soy consumption and increased risk of breast cancer. While it’s true that the isoflavones in soy do have a mild estrogenic effect (meaning they are able to weakly bind estrogen receptor sites in your body’s tissue, which caused some concern about breast cancer risk), they also have a positive effect on estrogen metabolism and help produce a cancer-protective estrogen byproduct. Given its benefits, eating one serving of soy a day is a wise diet decision. Look for less processed, organic, non-genetically modified (non-GMO) forms of soy, including plain edamame, tofu, tempeh, plain soy yogurt and soy milk, instead of highly processed isolated soy protein in shakes and bars.
Sprinkle on Some Flaxseed
Flax is a rich source of lignans, fiber compounds that promote a healthy digestive tract. It has been shown to help prevent colorectal cancer, and also has a positive effect on estrogen metabolism, similar to the isoflavones in soy. Purchase whole flax seeds and grind them at home (they need to be consumed in ground form for your body to reap the benefits). You can grind enough for about one week and store in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator. Use up to two tablespoons of ground flaxseed daily, sprinkled on anything from cereal to soups to salads.
Drink a Cup of Tea
All varieties of tea—black, red (rooibos), white or green—contain polyphenols, chemicals that have been shown to have cancer-fighting qualities. Scientists aren’t sure why, but some lab and animal research suggests that polyphenols may help protect cells from DNA damage caused by free radicals, inhibit tumor cell proliferation and more. They may be particularly protective against skin and gastrointestinal cancers. Green tea is also very high in antioxidants, so brew a few cups a day—drink it hot in the winter, iced in the summer.
Swap Bad Fats for Good Ones
Beyond the risk they pose to your heart, saturated, animal and trans fats may increase cancer risk. One study found that consumption of red meat can increase cancer mortality, while a diet rich in other, leaner protein forms (like legumes, fish, nuts) can actually help lower your risk. High amounts of trans fats (noted on ingredient labels as “partially hydrogenated oils”) were associated with risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in another study, by Harvard researchers. Opt for foods rich in omega-3s, monosaturated fats and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA); increasing evidence suggests these fats may be protective against cancer. Try salmon, sardines, avocados, walnuts, pumpkin seeds or omega-3 enriched eggs. (Limit yourself to 12 ounces of fish per week, due to the health risks of mercury.)
Swallow the Right Supplements
Your diet may have some gaps in important nutrients and minerals, which your nutritionist can help fill with supplements shown to offer some promise when it comes to lowering cancer risk. For example, folic acid (a B vitamin) is essential for proper cell division, and low intakes are associated with an increased risk of some cancers. Much of the recent research on vitamin D has pointed to its possible role in lowering risk of a variety of cancers, and CoQ10 is an important antioxidant that may be helpful in protecting against cancer recurrence, especially breast cancer. Make sure to check with your health care team about the best type and dosage of supplements for you before you begin taking any.
Keep Your Weight in Check
Regular exercise and a diet rich in vitamins and minerals can help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, which is important not only for your overall health, but also for cancer prevention. Studies suggest that in the United States, excess weight or obesity is responsible for 14 percent of deaths from cancer in men and 20 percent in women. Another study estimates that 30 to 35 percent of cancer deaths can be attributed to diet. Talk to your physician about what your optimal weight is and how you can reach it through exercise and healthy food choices.