Can Food Lower Your Cancer Risk?

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sylvester cancer logoIf you want to have a lower risk of a bunch of cancers, the answer may be as close as your refrigerator — or the farmer’s market.

Costly supplements often don’t give us the vitamins we need in a way that our bodies can best use them. However, our bodies are skilled at pulling what they need to thrive from what we eat.

So, eat the right stuff.

Lesley Klein, a clinical oncology dietitian and the clinical nutrition manager for Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center uses the rainbow as a way to stimulate her patients’ interest in eating a healthier diet.

“When we steer our diets toward vegetables, fruits and whole grains by getting a variety of colors, we collect a variety of nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy," she says. "We have brochures that give a visual representation of what a healthy meal should look like, including making sure that two-thirds of your plate is covered with colorful plant food, heavy on the vegetables.”

Increases in heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes cases? Inflammation may be the culprit.

The two main dietary causes of inflammation are animal protein and sugar. Because starchy vegetables and fruits can be high in sugar, Klein tells her patients to lean toward a plant-based diet with the majority of their carbohydrates coming from non-starchy vegetables and small amounts of fruit. Protein builds and repairs tissue that is being broken down during weight loss.

“People don’t understand that when we lose weight, we lose fat and muscle, but when we gain weight, we gain mostly fat, so lean tissue like muscle suffers unless we replace the protein we need," says Klein. "What people may not realize is that you can get a lot of protein in plant foods."

For instance, a half-cup of quinoa has four grams of protein and a half-cup beans has 8 grams of protein. If you throw in garlic, peppers and onions, you have a tasty side dish, high in protein.

Experts at the American Cancer Society, the World Health Organization and the US Department of Agriculture are in agreement: low-fat plant-based diets can lower cancer risk and improve survival in people with breast, colon, prostate cancers, even melanomas.  The American Institute for Cancer Research has identified 12 cancers linked to overweight or obesity.

Scientists from the National Cancer Institute Division of Cancer Prevention cite research from several sources that vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and dietary fiber can protect against a variety of cancers Cancer prevention isn’t so much about what you have to give up but what you should include.

Here are five common cancer fighting foods:

  1. Garlic: Eating two to three cloves of garlic daily reduces the risk of colon, breast, brain, lung, and other cancer, and enhances the flavor of your food.
  2. Red apples: An apple a day protects against liver, colon, and breast cancer.
  3. Cruciferous vegetables: Veggies like broccoli, cabbage, and Brussel sprouts help prevent breast, bladder, lung, prostate, and other cancers.
  4. High fiber: High fiber foods like fresh fruit, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, beans, and legumes protect us by moving out chemicals that promote cancer. The Mayo Clinic suggests a daily fiber intake of 30-50 grams. That’s not as much as it sounds: small amounts of the foods listed above per day and you are there.
  5. Flaxseed: Ground flaxseed, when sprinkled over cereal, oatmeal, or other foods, helps slow the growth of prostate and breast cancer.

Other fruits and veggies key to preventing cancer and/or its recurrence include: blueberries, carrots, cherries, dark leafy green vegetables, dried beans and peas, grapes, grapefruit, squash, tomatoes, walnuts and whole grains.

Special chemotherapy considerations

A common complaint with patients undergoing chemotherapy is that they have changes in taste and nausea that makes eating difficult. A special fruit grown in South Florida, called Miracle Fruit (synsepalum dulcificum) can be a big help. Klein says that the berry has a protein that attaches to the taste buds and makes everything taste sweet and more palatable for up to two hours, enabling cancer patients to get the nutrition they need.

Sylvester Healthy Food Initiative

Klein and her team have conducted pop-up nutrition programs on topics like eating well, weight management and other helpful nutrition topics for patients, their families, and the community.

"We should never underestimate the power of good nutrition to keep us healthy, prevent cancer, cancer recurrence, heart disease, obesity and diabetes," Klein says. It should be an integral part of our life plan.



Mary Jo Blackwood, RN, MPH, is a contributing writer for the UMiami Health News blog. She is a two-time breast cancer thriver, and a long-time freelance medical writer based in St. Louis, MO and Hartsel, CO. She writes physician-to-physician magazine articles, consumer health articles, and webpages for cancer patients, among other things.