Nutrition for Reducing Cancer Risk
By Brenna Thompson, MS, RD, LD
March 29, 2016
If you were sitting in your doctor’s office, what is the scariest diagnosis you could think of? For many people, the answer is cancer. Visions of IV chemotherapy, radiation, hair loss, pain and fatigue start running through our minds. Maybe you have been there, or you have witnessed a loved one go through it. One might think that with all the research being done on cancer, we would have stumbled upon a “cure” by now. Unfortunately since 1970, the rate of cancer mortality has only decreased by 12 percent (1). This is with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding more than $5,274 million per year since 2012 (2) towards cancer research. With this in mind, we believe it’s time to focus more on ways to help reduce cancer risk. We know diet and lifestyle play a very important role in cancer prevention and treatment. In fact, 90 percent of cancer cases are related to what we eat and how we live.(3) The question you are probably asking yourself now is, “What should I eat, or not eat, to help reduce my risk of getting cancer?”
Research is currently conflicted as to whether eating more fruits and vegetables decreases a person’s risk of developing cancer (4). The USDA recommends five cups of fruits and vegetables per day for good health. But for cancer prevention, I recommend eating nine cups of vegetables every day, and then having a few servings of fruit. When my clients fill up on vegetables they don’t have room for processed foods, and their cravings for sugar (cancer’s favorite food) go away. All the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in those vegetables help protect cells from free radical damage which can lead to cancer. Also, by filling up on all that produce you reduce your risk of obesity, which is highly correlated to cancer risk.
Despite what you might hear in the news, I recommend eating grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, and poultry (chicken or turkey) to reduce your risk of cancer. Protein helps build strong cells and a strong immune system. I’m not recommending people start eating hot dogs, fast food hamburgers, and chicken nuggets though. Processed meats like these have been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer, exactly what you don’t want. Instead, choose real proteins such as eggs, chicken, steak, pork chops, and wild-caught salmon. These unprocessed proteins will be used to support your body’s immune system, making it strong enough to identify damaged cells and get rid of them before they become tumors. Most people find that eating 4-6 ounces of cooked meat, poultry, or fish with their meals helps them stay full and satisfied. This might be more than you are used to eating, but you will likely find that by eating enough protein you’ll have fewer cravings, which makes avoiding processed carbs and sugar much easier.
Your cooking method matters
Choosing real protein is an excellent step, but cooking technique also matters. Results from the Iowa Women’s Health Study found that the women who ate the most well-done burgers and steaks had a four-times greater risk of breast cancer than those who ordered medium or rare.
Charring and frying meat creates heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (5), substances which create more inflammation in the body, increasing the risk of breast, colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer. When cooking your protein choice, use low heat or moist heat methods such as braising, slow roasting and sautéing.
Your body needs fat to build strong cell walls to keep out cancer-causing free radicals. If you have been eating processed fats (such as vegetable, soybean, corn, canola, rapeseed, or cottonseed oils) your cell membranes may be weak. My clients are often surprised by all the places these processed fats hide. Look at the food labels in your pantry, fridge, and freezer; do you have any products in there that contain these fats? If so, throw them out. Replace processed fats with real fats such as coconut oil, butter and olive oil. These fats help support strong cell membranes, keeping your DNA safe from harm.
Sugar isn’t only found in toaster pastries, candy, ice cream and soda. Your body turns all carbohydrates into sugar. That includes the salty, savory carbohydrates like chips, crackers, bread, bagels, and pasta. High-sugar foods create a lot of inflammation and free radicals. Over time that inflammation will damage cells, which can lead to cancer. Most people know that processed foods also lead to weight gain, and as I mentioned already, obesity is a huge risk factor for cancer. Find ways to replace high-carb, high-sugar foods with carbohydrates in the form of vegetables in order to help you lose weight, maintain a healthy weight, and reduce cancer risk.
There’s no doubt about it, excess alcohol intake increases your risk for mouth, throat, esophageal, liver and breast cancer. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends no more than one drink per day for women and only two for men. However, for people with a family history of these cancers, it is probably advisable to reduce alcohol intake to much less than that. The process of metabolizing alcohol creates a chemical called acetaldehyde which can damage DNA. Some people are better at getting rid of the acetaldehyde than others. Excess alcohol consumption can also decrease your body’s absorption of vitamins A, C, D, E, folate and other B vitamins, all of which are needed to protect your cells against free-radical damage. To protect your cells against the effects of alcohol, try replacing your nightly glass of wine or your weekend cocktail with a glass of club soda and a lime wedge.
No one wants to think about cancer; I sure don’t. Nor is the answer as simple as eating real food. There is no magic cure. But, as a nutritionist I know that food matters, and I eat the Weight & Wellness Way because eating real food is the best way I know to support my health one meal and one snack at a time. I hope you will make eating real food part of your strategy to reduce your cancer risk. If you or a loved one are facing cancer, real food can support you during treatment and in healing.
For more information, listen to our podcast: Nutrition for Reducing Cancer Risk.
If you would like one-on-one nutrition support, I or any of the Nutritional Weight & Wellness nutritionists would be honored to work with you.