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Whether you have a history of cancer in your family, or are currently battling the disease, lifestyle factors, including your diet, can make a huge difference in helping you fight off cancer. Some foods actually increase your risk of cancer, while others support your body and strengthen your immune system. By making smart food choices, you can protect your health, feel better, and boost your ability fight off cancer and other diseases.
The link between cancer and diet
Not all health problems are avoidable, but you have more control over your health than you may think. Research shows that a large percentage of cancer-related deaths are directly linked to lifestyle choices such as smoking, drinking, a lack of exercise, and an unhealthy diet. Avoiding cigarettes, limiting alcohol, reaching a healthy weight, and getting regular exercise are a great start to preventing cancer. But to best support your health, you also need to look at your eating habits.
What you eat—and don’t eat—has a powerful effect on your health, including your risk of cancer. Without knowing it, you may be eating many foods that fuel cancer, while neglecting the powerful foods and nutrients that can protect you. For example, a daily serving of processed meat increases your risk of colorectal cancer, whereas eating soy foods such as tofu or edamame can help reduce your risk of breast cancer and eating more fruits and vegetables can lower your risk for a variety of common cancers. By making small changes to your diet and behaviors, you can lower your risk of disease. And if you’ve already been diagnosed, eating a nutritious diet can help support your mood and health during this challenging time.
Focus on fruits and vegetables
While there’s no single food you can eat to prevent or fight cancer on its own, a balanced plant-based diet filled with a variety of vegetables, fruits, soy, nuts, whole grains, and beans can help lower your risk for many types of cancer. Eating a colorful variety gives you the best protection. Plant-based foods are rich in nutrients that boost your immune system and help protect against cancer cells. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of antioxidants such as beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium. These powerful vitamins can protect against cancer and help the cells in your body function optimally.
There is also evidence that plant-based foods may be effective at preventing specific cancers. For example:
- Diets high in fruit may lower the risk of stomach and lung cancer.
- Eating vegetables containing carotenoids, such as carrots, Brussels sprouts, and squash, may reduce the risk of lung, mouth, pharynx, and larynx cancers.
- Diets high in non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, spinach, and beans, may help protect against stomach and esophageal cancer.
- Eating oranges, berries, peas, bell peppers, dark leafy greens and other foods high in vitamin C may also protect against esophageal cancer.
- Foods high in lycopene, such as tomatoes, guava, and watermelon, may lower the risk of prostate cancer.
The less processed these plant-based foods are—the less they’ve been cooked, peeled, mixed with other ingredients, stripped of their nutrients, or otherwise altered from the way they came out of the ground—the better.
How to add more cancer-fighting fruits and veggies to your diet
There are many ways to add plant-based foods to your diet. A nice visual reminder is to aim for a plate of food that is filled at least two-thirds with whole grains, vegetables, beans, or fruit. Dairy products, fish, and meat should take up no more than a third of the plate.
Keep in mind that you don’t need to go completely vegetarian. Instead, focus on adding “whole” foods, which are foods close to their original form. Just as important, try to minimize or reduce the amount of processed foods you eat. Eat an apple instead of drinking a glass of apple juice, for example. Or enjoy a bowl of oatmeal with raisins instead of an oatmeal raisin cookie.
Breakfast: Add fruit and a few seeds or nuts to your whole grain, low-sugar breakfast cereal (such as oatmeal).
Lunch: Eat a big salad filled with your favorite beans and peas or other combo of veggies. Always order lettuce and tomato (plus any other veggies you can) on your sandwiches, which should be made with whole grain bread. Have a side of veggies like carrots, sauerkraut, or fruit.
Snacks: Fresh fruit and vegetables. Grab an apple or banana on your way out the door. Raw veggies such as carrots, celery, cucumbers, jicama, peppers, etc. are great with a healthy dip such as hummus. Keep trail mix made with nuts, seeds, and a little dried fruit on hand.
Dinner: Add fresh or frozen veggies to your favorite pasta sauce or rice dish. Top a baked potato with broccoli and yogurt, sautéed veggies, or with salsa. Replace creamy pasta sauces with sautéed vegetables or tomato sauce made with healthy olive oil.
Dessert: Choose fruit instead of a richer dessert. Or a single square of dark chocolate.