Despite the hype, there is no one superfood when it comes to preventing cancer. But there are dietary steps we can take to reduce our overall risk of developing the disease.
While certain factors, such as genetics and environment, are beyond our influence, by developing healthy eating and lifestyle habits we can diminish our cancer risks. These same principles can be customized to guide eating while actively battling a cancer diagnosis.
5 dietary tips for reduced cancer risk
1. Focus on meal balance: Think of the new Canada’s Food Guide plate model! Load up on produce, choose lean proteins, opt for whole grains and make water your drink of choice.
2. Eat more plants: Plant-focused diets may reduce the probability of developing cancer, as they are often higher in fibre, vitamins and minerals, while being low in red and processed meats. Plant-based foods such as veggies, fruits, whole grains and beans contain phytochemicals that have the potential to boost immunity, reduce inflammation, prevent DNA damage, slow tumour growth, regulate hormones and act as antioxidants (antioxidants are compounds that protect cells from free radicals, which are harmful substances produced naturally through food breakdown as well as environmental pollution).
3. Eat to maintain a healthy weight for your body: Being overweight or obese is indirectly linked to 12 types of cancer and other related diseases.
4. Focus on fibre: Fibre reduces the risk of colorectal cancer and other chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. Fibre also helps with weight management by promoting fullness without excess calories.
5. Focus on food first: There is no one food that will protect against cancer. While some foods are known to reduce cancer risk, research shows we benefit from the unique nutrient profile of each ingredient we eat. We don’t eat nutrients – we eat food! Therefore, it’s important to focus on food first rather than high doses of individual nutrients through supplements.
Visit the American Institute of Cancer Research for specific foods thought to fight cancer, including cruciferous vegetables, blueberries, flaxseed, legumes, soy, tea and garlic. Each of these items contains a rich source of one or more cancer-protective vitamins, minerals or phytochemicals.
Known cancer-promoting foods to avoid
Limit intake of the following substances that have been shown to significantly increase risk of developing cancer:
ALCOHOL: Consuming alcohol is associated with increased risk of colorectal, breast, liver, head and neck, and esophagus cancers. If you do drink alcohol, limit it to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
RED MEAT: Beef, pork, goat and lamb are considered red meat. Eating too much can increase risk of developing colorectal cancer. Limit red meat intake to no more than three servings per week (18 ounces total).
PROCESSED MEATS: Processed meats, such as bacon, salami and cured fish, are those that have been altered by smoking, curing or salting and/or have added chemical preservatives. These meat products are linked to colorectal and stomach cancers.
ADDED SUGAR, SALT & FAT: Too much salt may increase risk of developing stomach cancer. Excess sugar and fat may indirectly increase cancer risk by contributing excess calories associated with weight gain.
Eating during cancer treatment
While actively going through cancer treatment, in general it’s important to follow the above principles as much as possible. However, nutrition recommendations may change based on diagnosis, disease-related symptoms and treatment side-effects. For instance, higher-calorie food options may be indicated for patients who have unintentionally lost weight through treatment; patients with changes to chewing or swallowing ability may require food texture modifications. It’s important to seek the advice of a registered dietitian to tailor individual recommendations.
What we eat – or don’t eat – influences our risk for developing cancer. Paying attention to what we eat as well as other modifiable factors, such as physical activity, smoking status, alcohol intake and UV exposure, allows us to take some control over both our cancer risks and general well-being.