While the answer is yes, foods in your cupboard can increase your risk of cancer, I like to look on the bright side, so I’ll start with the good news. You can substantially reduce your lifestyle risk of developing or dying from cancer by following a healthy dietary pattern, staying at a healthy body weight, being physically active throughout your life and avoiding exposure to tobacco. The bad news is that I can’t guarantee that these healthy lifestyle choices will prevent cancer, since other things influence your risk as well, like environmental exposure and genetics. Of course there are other benefits to a healthy lifestyle, the same behaviors can also reduce your risk of getting chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease and diabetes, so you get many benefits from doing the same healthy things.
Below are the main nutrition recommendations designed to reduce your risk of cancer in general with a focus on specific cancers when it’s important. If you’re living with a cancer diagnosis and want to prevent recurrence, the recommendations are the same. These changes aren’t simple or easy. If you’d like some guidance, All Foods Nutrition can help you incorporate these recommendations in ways that will fit your lifestyle with nutritional counseling.
1. Start with a plant-based diet. Plan meals and snacks around plant foods rather than animal foods- a healthy plate should be at least 2/3 full of plant foods. By doing this, you can include the recommended 2.5-5 cups of non-starchy vegetables and fruit. A typical Western diet with lots of meat and fat and few fruits and vegetables doubles your risk of cancer. French fries don’t count and white bread won’t help, it’s important to choose whole grains and legumes that are high in fiber. You can find whole grains by looking for products where the 1st ingredient starts with the word whole. Include whole soy products to reduce the risk of breast cancer. Choose whole soy products like edamame, tofu and tempeh as processed soy (isolated soy protein found in protein bars and other food products) may be damaging instead of helpful.
2. Focus on nutrient dense foods by limiting pre-prepared foods, baked goods and desserts. These foods have lots of calories and little nutrition. Reduce or eliminate fast foods like burgers, fried chicken, french fries, and fatty or sugary drinks. This doesn’t apply to healthy but calorie dense foods like nuts, seeds and seed oils (olive oil) these are great to include.
3. Choose water and other naturally sugar free beverages like coffee, tea and seltzer. Drinks like soda, juice, sports drinks, lemonade, sweetened iced tea and fruit flavored drinks should be a special treat or dessert, not a regular part of your day. Limit or avoid alcohol, as any alcohol increases the risk of cancer. Many guidelines recommend limiting intake to no more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women (one drink = 12 oz beer, 5 oz wine, or 1.5 oz 80 proof spirits). Alcohol consumption with tobacco use increases the risk of cancers much more than the effect of either alone. Reducing alcohol consumption is one of few widely recognized ways women can reduce risk of breast cancer.
4. If able, women should breastfeed. The goal is exclusive breastfeeding at least up to six months of age and continuing to breastfeed along with food thereafter. Breastfeeding protects the mother against breast & ovarian cancer and benefits the baby as well.
5. Choose lean and vegetarian protein options. Focus on protein sources like fish, poultry & beans and limit or avoid red meat (beef, lamb and pork) and avoid processed meat. Processed meat includes luncheon meats, hot dogs, sausage, ham, chemically preserved minced meats, salami, pastrami and bacon. The more red and processed meat you eat, the higher your risk, so if you are having red or processed meat, choose smaller portions and use meat as a side dish or flavor enhancer rather than the focus of a meal.
6. Cook meat the safe way. Cooking meat by baking, poaching, braising, steaming, stewing or microwaving can reduce the formation of carcinogens. Avoid grilled, fried, smoked and broiled meat, poultry, and fish. Smoking meat may also form compounds that make these foods more likely to increase your risk of cancer.
For more information I recommend this National Institutes of Health website: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet
If you’re interested in learning to slowly incorporate the changes you want to make, please get in touch using the form on my homepage or using the contact page. If insurance doesn’t cover nutrition counseling, I offer private pay packages which include a cancer prevention package with 5 nutrition visits and one visit to either the grocery store or your home to help you make healthy choices easy.
1. World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research.
Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective.
Washington DC: AICR, 2007
2. Gonzales, J. F., Barnard, N. D., Jenkins, D. J., Lanou, A. J., Davis, B., Saxe, G., & Levin, S. (2014). Applying the precautionary principle to nutrition and cancer. J Am Coll Nutr, 33(3), 239-246. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2013.866527
3. Kushi, L. H., Doyle, C., McCullough, M., Rock, C. L., Demark-Wahnefried, W., Bandera, E. V., . Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory, C. (2012). American Cancer Society Guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention: reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical activity. CA Cancer J Clin, 62(1), 30-67. doi: 10.3322/caac.20140