Cancer. It’s a word we don’t like to think about, a word that can turn your life upside down when connected to “you” and “have.” While the genes you inherit determine some of your risk for developing cancer, your genes are not your destiny. Research shows that it’s how our genes interact with our environment — including the food we eat — that matters most.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), the scientific evidence overwhelmingly shows that our everyday choices affect our chances of getting cancer. A cancer-fighting diet has three parts: Prevention, treatment and survivorship. The principles of prevention apply whether you’ve never had cancer, or you’re trying to prevent cancer from returning once you’ve successfully undergone cancer treatment (i.e., survivorship).
Eating to help treat cancer has more variables, such as the type of cancer, the type of medical treatment, and any side effects from the disease or the treatment. While many cancer patients are told to eat whatever they want — because sometimes eating anything at all is hard — that advice has been revised. While it is important to get adequate calories, the odds of treatment success may be boosted with a nutritious diet.
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Nutrition plays an important role in supporting the body as it undergoes difficult treatment from surgery, chemotherapy or radiation. A diet with adequate calories, nutrients and protein also helps prevent unintended weight loss, including loss of muscle. Together, this can reduce side effects and help the treatment work effectively.
A cancer-preventive diet is rich in nutrients — from food. Our bodies absorb nutrients in their complete food “packages” better than isolated nutrients found in supplements. In fact, the AICR recommends that we don’t use supplements to try to protect against cancer.
To get these nutrients, we need to eat more plant foods. AICR suggests aiming to fill two-thirds of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. That includes at least five servings a day of vegetables and fruits. These foods are high in important nutrients — vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals — while generally being lower in calories. Eating a variety of colorful plant foods exposes the body’s cells to a broad mix of phytochemicals, natural compounds that may help protect cells from damage that lead to cancer.
What about the other third of your plate? You can fill it with animal protein (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, milk and dairy) if you choose, but make your choices healthy ones. Choose lean meats, and don’t let them become charred or burnt during cooking.
While you’re eating more plant foods, here’s what to eat less of:
•Processed meats, which often contain preservatives and other substances that may be cancer promoting.
•Highly processed foods and beverages with added salt, sugar or fat. These tend to be lower in nutrients, fiber and water while being higher in calories.
•Refined carbohydrates (white bread, white-flour pasta and white rice). These foods are low in fiber and nutrients, and can cause rapid rises in blood sugar. If you enjoy juice, choose 100 percent fruit juice and stick to one 6-ounce serving a day.
•Alcohol, which increases the risk of certain cancers, including breast and colorectal cancer. If you imbibe, don’t exceed two drinks a day for men, one drink a day for women.
Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, CD: firstname.lastname@example.org. Dennett is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a Master of Public Health degree in nutritional sciences from UW; her blog is nutritionbycarrie.com and her website is carriedennett.com.