October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and that puts good focus on breast cancer. It also puts a spotlight on cancer in general. Your diet and certain foods can help prevent or increase your odds of developing cancer. I talked to Sarah Heffron, MEd, RD, CSO (Board Certified Specialist in Oncology – Nutrition) Clinical Oncology Dietitian with The Christ Hospital Cancer Center about what foods we should eat — and which ones we should avoid — to prevent cancer.
Preventing cancer with food
Can food help prevent cancer? I am thrilled that Sarah said, "Absolutely, and I find it fascinating that our foods contain phytonutrients, which are substances found in plants that are beneficial to our health and prevent disease. When you read that a food 'may inhibit cancer cell growth, limit production of cancer-related hormones and induce detoxification of carcinogens', you know that our foods are powerful and truly can be used as medicine."
I have always heard that but did not realize how much food can play a big part in preventing cancer. It really made me take a good look at not only what I eat but also what I am feeding my family.
Food can help the fight
Unfortunately, I have friends who are currently battling cancer. It is hard to watch what they are going through. Some of them are very open about how they have changed their diet. According to Sarah, there are foods that can help — VEGETABLES!
She suggested, "Not always a popular choice, but vegetables, legumes, fruits, tea and some nuts are all some of the sources of these powerful phytonutrients. Combine them with some healthy fats from anti-inflammatory oils (like extra virgin olive oil), seeds and nuts alongside great sources of protein, and you have a complete cancer-fighting meal. It's important to work through symptoms that different treatments may present, but fueling the body with foods that help prevent inflammation is much more beneficial than grabbing processed, high-sugar foods that do the opposite. Our foods are fuel, and it matters what type of fuel you use." This is exactly the kind of diet that my friends try to stick to.
Sarah went on to point out, "Carrying excess body fat increases a post-menopausal woman's risk for breast cancer. It also increases blood levels of hormones, including insulin and hormones that encourage the growth of many breast cancers. This leads to the recommendation to exercise regularly. Breastfeeding your baby has also been shown to be lower a woman's risk for breast cancer. I think it's important to point out that genetic factors contribute to only 5-10 percent of all breast cancers, so taking control of these controllable factors (eating and exercise) is so important. One in eight women in the US will develop breast cancer in their lifetime."
Foods to avoid to prevent cancer
We all want a miracle answer, but it's not that easy. There are obvious items we should avoid for better health overall. When it comes to food that we should avoid, Sarah recommended, "There aren't foods that we have identified as 'causing' cancer, but we definitely know that certain foods cause inflammation and destroy healthy environments in our body (like in our gut)." She goes on to say:
Avoid processed foods. Read your ingredients! If there is something that you don't recognize, you probably shouldn't put it in your body!
Avoid alcohol. Research shows a consistent link between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of cancer. The risk for breast and esophageal cancers starts at less than one drink per day. Other cancers show risk when alcohol is consumed beyond the standard of one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men). Any reduction in alcohol is a reduction in cancer risk. Limit/avoid sugar-sweetened beverages, which promote weight gain, which in-turn increases the risk in obesity-related cancers.
Processed meats (sausage, ham, bacon, hot dogs, salami, lunch meats) — any meats that have been smoked, cured or containing nitrate or nitrite-based additives eaten regularly increase the risk of colon cancer. The research is strong regarding this association.
Red meats (including beef, pork and lamb) should be limited to less than 12-18 ounces per week or less. Eating high amounts of red meats showed strong evidence of an increased risk of colorectal cancers.
That sounds like a lot that we need to avoid or limit, but after hearing what she had to say, it doesn't seem like much for me to be healthy.
Foods patients wtih cancer should eat
I also wondered about the foods women who are battling cancer should eat, and she suggested, "Whole food soy contains isoflavones (also called phytoestrogens) that seem to bind to estrogen receptors potentially acting as tumor suppressors. Lignans are another phytonutrient found in flaxseeds that have been shown to decrease and slow the growth of breast cancer cells. Green tea components seemed to inhibit the growth of cancer cells in the lab and may help with programmed cell death (apoptosis)."
Sarah has made it clear that a healthy diet can make a difference when it comes to preventing cancer. She says to work on a plant-based diet, and meal prep is a great idea.
She also recommended, "Eat as many different colored vegetables as you can every day (cooked with delicious flavors and textures to make you excited about eating them). Healthy proteins including legumes, fatty fish like salmon, poultry, eggs, limited red meats. Plant-based fats in moderation (think of nuts, seeds — especially ground flax, extra virgin olive oil, avocados and olives). Carbohydrates should be in limited portions and should focus on starchy vegetables, whole grains and beans/legumes (avoiding processed foods). Plenty of water—but fit in some green tea for its helpful benefits (you may want this earlier in the day as it naturally contains caffeine)." She also suggested that instead of pouring that glass of juice, reach for a fresh piece of fruit instead!