When it comes to cancer — both fighting and preventing it — healthy food is one of your best defenses.
Fueling your body with nutritious food helps reduce the risk of cancer developing or returning. If you're being treated for cancer, a healthy diet helps boost your immune system to lower your risk of infection. Smart food choices can also help you recover from treatment and lay the groundwork for living well and cancer-free.
What does food have to do with your risk for cancer?
Family history and growing older are two cancer risk factors we can't control. But there’s one risk factor we can directly impact: poor eating habits that hinder our ability to maintain a healthy weight. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, about 40% of cancers diagnosed in the U.S. are related to excess body fat, increasing risk for several types of cancers, including:
So, how does excess fat increase your risk for cancer? Common hormones are the culprit. Fat makes the body produce more estrogen and insulin, which are hormones that stimulate cancer growth. The bottom line? More fat unleashes more hormones, which creates a greater cancer risk.
What is a healthy, cancer-fighting diet?
With so much conflicting dietary information out there, knowing what the healthiest cancer-fighting diet is can feel overwhelming and confusing. But reducing cancer risks with a healthy diet is simpler than it seems: eat food that provides good nutrition.
Contrary to what the internet may want you to believe, there isn't a specific food or food group that's been proven to prevent cancer. But plant-based diets are the champs at reducing cancer risks.
Experts agree (and research too) that a plant-slant diet provides the most cancer-fighting foods. Colorful fruits and vegetables are loaded with phytonutrients, natural compounds that help prevent cancer, along with other chronic diseases.
Remember, a healthy diet doesn't have to be complicated. It just comes down to eating more of some types of food and less of others.
Stock up on:
The good news: You don't have to stick with only organic (more expensive) fruits and vegetables since there’s no evidence that shows lower pesticide versions are "safer" than conventional versions. There is also no present consensus that organic foods contain more vitamins and minerals. Buy what's affordable and just eat more of them. To learn about which foods are best to buy organic, visit the “dirty dozen” list from the Environmental Working Group.
Cut back on:
Eliminating certain foods always and forever isn't realistic, and more often than not, will only leave you feeling defeated. Instead, make "once in a while" your moderation motto. That nightly bowl of ice cream? Pick a regular time (how about the monthly full moon?) to splurge with a few spoonfuls of your favorite treat. You'll enjoy it just as much — maybe even more since it's a special treat.
A note about supplements
It is better to get nutrients through food and not rely on supplements to reduce cancer risk. Some people may benefit from supplements for specific health reasons, but the benefits of a healthy variety of foods has been shown to be far more beneficial in reducing cancer risk. Speak with your health care provider regarding advice for your specific need for any supplements.
What about alcohol?
Many people are surprised to learn that alcohol is a known cause of cancer. Ethanol is the type of alcohol found in all alcoholic drinks. In the body, ethanol converts to a chemical that can damage DNA inside cells and keep your body from repairing the damage. The cell can grow out of control and create a cancer tumor.
According to the American Cancer Society, alcohol causes about 6% of all cancers in the U.S. Alcohol use is linked to cancers of the:
It's best not to drink alcohol at all. When you're trying to fuel your body with the most nutritious foods and drinks possible, it's clear that alcohol doesn't make the cut. If you're going to drink, the American Cancer Society recommends limiting it to no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women.
About the Author
Joanne Ebner is manager of the Cancer Prevention Department and Nicotine Dependence Program at Luminis Health Anne Arundel Medical Center.
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