What needs to make more headlines is that the leading causes of death in the United States can be prevented. Your risks for both heart disease (#1) and cancer (#2) can be significantly reduced by choosing to increase certain foods and decreasing others. This is the power of nutrition. By understanding and using this power, you can masterfully influence your health in so many ways.
Specifically, when talking about the “big C” (cancer), it may be surprising to learn that many everyday foods—those packed with nutrients and fiber—are linked with a lower risk of several types of cancer. (It may be less surprising to learn about those foods that are linked with increased cancer risk.)
This week’s article covers four key nutrition strategies that can reduce your risk of getting cancer. The foods and drinks you consume can play a big role and I want to share some of the research with you.
Imagine having the power to wield an enormous impact on your risk of developing cancer in the future. In fact, you absolutely do have this power and this article is going to show you how to use it.
While there is no single food or habit that will surely cause cancer, there is also no single food or habit that will surely prevent it. To reduce your risk of being diagnosed with cancer you can influence any number of your day-to-day lifestyle practices, including nutrition. There are several choices you can make to exert a big difference to your cancer risk.
According to the World Cancer Research Fund International, these are the top cancer prevention recommendations related to diet, nutrition, and physical activity:
Be a healthy weight
Be physically active
Enjoy a better diet
Limit “fast foods”
Limit red and processed meat
Cut down on sugary drinks
Limit alcohol consumption
Do not use supplements for cancer prevention
Breastfeed your baby if you can
Avoid smoking and other exposure to tobacco
Don’t get excess sun exposure
In this article, you’re going to learn more about some of these diet and nutrition-related recommendations so that you can wield your power to reduce your risk of getting cancer. You’ll also get some goals, tips, and strategies to make them work for you.
Fun fact: The healthy nutrition strategies in this article will not only reduce your risk of cancer, but they can also reduce your risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and excess weight gain.
What is cancer and how can nutrition reduce your risk of getting it?
Behind heart disease (which is number one), cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States. Cancer happens when cells—from anywhere in the body—become abnormal and multiply uncontrollably. These cancer cells can cause damage by eventually growing into lumps or otherwise spreading throughout the body.
There are many different types of cancer and many different things can increase and decrease your risk of cancer. Cancer starts when there is an interaction between cells, the genetics inherited from parents, exposures to different compounds and viruses, and any number of other factors.
The good news is that many cancers are highly preventable with a healthy lifestyle that includes an abundance of nutritious foods. In fact, according to Harvard Health, a healthy dietary pattern can reduce your cancer risk by 10-20 percent.
One of the main nutrition-related factors that can increase risk of cancer is excess weight. Studies show that excess weight can increase risks for cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx, larynx, esophagus), stomach, pancreas, gall bladder, liver, colorectum, breast (post-menopausal), ovary, endometrium, prostate, and kidney.
How to enjoy a better diet to reduce your cancer risk.
What exactly is a “better,” cancer-risk-reducing diet? It’s choosing more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes like beans and lentils. These foods help reduce cancer risk in many ways. For example, they are full of essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Many fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes also contain other health-promoting compounds like antioxidants. Plus, these foods can help protect against excess weight because they can help you feel fuller longer due to their fiber and water content.
Fun fact: Fiber is a health-promoting carbohydrate found in plant foods. It’s a unique type of carbohydrate because it’s one that our gut can’t break it down to digest. This has many health benefits for your digestive system. For one thing, fiber can help you feel fuller and help your digestive system keep things moving, and promote regularity. Fiber also supports a healthy gut microbiome by feeding your friendly gut bacteria. Getting your fiber from foods is recommended over fiber supplements whenever possible.
Fiber-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes also contain antioxidants and protein. These foods are known to help protect against many cancers, including colorectal cancer. Non-starchy fruits and vegetables also protect against several cancers, including cancers located in the mouth and throat.
A recommended goal is to eat at least five servings of non-starchy fruits and vegetables and at least 30 grams of fiber each day. You can do this by including non-starchy fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes in every meal and enjoying them as snacks. Examples of these foods are:
a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, pineapple, broccoli, bell peppers, leafy greens, and blueberries
whole grains like brown rice, whole wheat, and oats
legumes include black beans, chickpeas (garbanzo beans), and lentils
Limit “fast foods” to reduce your cancer risk
“Fast foods” are convenient foods that are often very processed. “Processed” means they’re heavily manufactured and don’t resemble their natural state. (Think of an apple picked from a tree and how much it goes through to become part of an apple pie). Examples of fast foods include burgers, fried chicken, potato chips, fries, cakes, pastries, candies, and candy bars.
Many fast foods are engineered to be very tasty (“highly palatable”) and are prone to be enjoyed often and in large quantities. Fast foods are almost always high in fat, salt, and starches or sugars. They also usually have a long shelf-life so they can be stored for a long time (e.g., they’re not “fresh” foods that can wilt or go bad quickly). Eating too many fast and highly processed foods is linked to increased weight, insulin, blood sugar, and blood pressure.
The goal to reduce your cancer risk—and improve your overall health—is to limit how often and how much fast food is eaten.
Limit red and processed meat to reduce your cancer risk
Meat can be a good source of protein, iron, zinc, and Vitamin B12. However, eating too much red and processed meat is linked to many cancers, with the strongest link being to colorectal cancer.
Red meat includes beef, pork, veal, lamb, and goat. Processed meat is meat that has been salted, smoked, cured, or fermented. These processes are done to enhance the flavor of the meat and also to preserve it and increase its shelf life. Examples of processed meats are hot dogs, bacon, salami, sausages, and deli meats like ham.
Red and processed meats can contribute to cancer risk because they may contain or create cancer-causing substances when they’re processed and cooked (charred). They can also contribute to excess weight, which is a risk factor for many cancers.
The goal is to enjoy red meat in up to three portions per week and have even less processed meat. When you do eat red meat, you can choose leaner cuts of it, or even substitute it from time to time with other higher-protein foods like poultry, fish, legumes, eggs, nuts, or dairy.
Cut down on sugary drinks to reduce your cancer risk
Sugar-sweetened drinks include sodas and energy drinks, as well as sugar added to other beverages like tea and coffee. There is strong evidence that high intakes of sugary drinks contribute to excess weight and increases the risk of cancer.
Fun fact: Drinking coffee may protect against liver, endometrial, mouth, and throat cancers. Drinking tea (but not maté tea) is linked to a reduced risk of bladder cancer. [(Consider enjoying them with a bit less sugar.)]
Pro tip: Did you know most coffee shops will happily make their signature drinks with half of the sugar/syrup? Simply ask for your drink to be “half sweet” and see if they can accommodate your [goal/aim/ambition/journey] toward better health.
Try to reduce your intake of sugary drinks by having them less often and in smaller amounts. When it comes to the benefits of substituting sugar-sweetened drinks with low-calorie artificially-sweetened drinks, the science is not clear. That’s why the recommendation is to enjoy the water and unsweetened drinks.
Cancer is no small health risk and the empowering truth is that you absolutely have the ability to influence your health and future with nutrition. The foods (and drinks) you consume contribute to your healthy lifestyle to reduce your risk of cancer. And the great news is that these strategies can also reduce your risk of other chronic diseases at the same time.
By choosing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, and choosing fewer fast foods, red and processed meats, and sugary drinks, you can exert a big impact on your health. You don’t need to overhaul everything right away because small, sustainable changes to your day-to-day life can lead the way to improved wellness.
Need help choosing or implementing more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes into your diet? I’m here for you. Are you wondering how to make that broccoli taste great or how to substitute legumes for ground meat? Want more tips and strategies to start kicking those sugary drinks to the curb? Need support to plan, shop, and prepare more nutritious and healthy meals for yourself or your family? Book an appointment with me today to see if my product/program/service can help you. Click here to schedule your free consultation.
American Cancer Society. (2020, June 9). American Cancer Society guideline for diet and physical activity. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/guidelines.html
Cleveland Clinic. (2022, October 19). Anti-cancer diet: These foods may reduce your risk for cancer. Health Essentials. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/anti-cancer-diet/
Didinger, J. C. (2019). Diet and cancer prevention. Colorado State University. https://extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/nutrition-food-safety-health/diet-and-cancer-prevention-9-313/
Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health (n.d.). Preventing cancer. The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/cancer/preventing-cancer/
Key, T., Bradbury, K., Perez-Cornago, A., Sinha, R., Tsilidis, K., & Tsugane, S. (2020). Diet, nutrition, and cancer risk: what do we know and what is the way forward? BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 368, m511. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m511 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7190379/ https://www.bmj.com/content/368/bmj.m511
National Cancer Institute. (2015, April 29). Cancer causes and prevention: Diet. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/diet
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Aerodigestive tract. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/aerodigestive-tract
Stanford Medicine. (n.d.). Reducing your cancer risk through nutrition. https://stanfordhealthcare.org/medical-clinics/cancer-nutrition-services/reducing-cancer-risk.html
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Cancer prevention recommendations. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Eat wholegrains, vegetables, fruit and beans. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/eat-wholegrains-vegetables-fruit-and-beans/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Interactive cancer risk matrix. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/interactive-cancer-risk-matrix/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Limit ‘fast foods.’ https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/limit-fast-foods/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Limit red and processed meat. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/limit-red-and-processed-meat/
World Cancer Research Fund International. (n.d.). Limit sugar-sweetened drinks. https://www.wcrf.org/diet-activity-and-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/limit-sugar-sweetened-drinks/