Nutrition & Cancer Prevention: What’s the Connection?
If you knew that preventing cancer was as easy as eating healthy, would you do it?
While various risk factors play a role in the development of cancer, including family history, age, and ethnicity, there are many others that are within our control. Diet is one of the most voluntary habits that can have a direct impact on health. Research shows that at least 30 percent of cancer cases result from a poor diet and implementing evidence-based strategies can significantly aid in prevention.
We sat down with Sara Madden, RD, oncology dietitian at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center – Washington Township, to learn more about the right and wrong foods to eat, how they work, and how to easily fit them into our daily diet!
What to Eat:
Over the years, we’ve learned that plant-based foods are the main cancer-fighting agents, says Sara. These aren’t just your leafy greens (although, these are important); a plant-based diet encompasses a wide variety of fruits, veggies, beans, nuts, and whole grains.
In addition to this, you can still get your fill of animal-based proteins with fish and poultry – or “fins and feathers,” as I like to call them, says Sara.
What Not to Eat:
Foods that are shown to contribute to cancer are red and processed meats (commonly associated with colon, rectal, and stomach cancer), as well as processed foods that contain large amounts of saturated fats, artificial sweeteners, sodium, and other additives.
Processed meats – such as sausage, hot dogs, and deli meats – often contain chemical preservatives (nitrates and nitrites) that can wreak havoc on our gastrointestinal tract. Red meats – such as beef, veal, and pork, and also important to limit consumption of.
As discussed above, it’s wiser to incorporate more lean meats and fish into your diet.
Why this Works:
Plant-based foods are nutrient-dense and full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals – phytochemicals being they key word here, explains Sara. “Phytochemicals are a compound (sometimes antioxidants) that help to enhance the immune system, prevent DNA damage, and slow the progression of cancer cells.”
Keep in mind – eating whole foods, rather than just relying on supplements with specific nutrients by themselves, is ideal, as it allows everything to act/work for your body together, notes Sara.
Maintaining a healthy body weight is also essential to reducing cancer risk, which is ultimately achieved best when limiting your intake of processed, junky foods.
If you’re already facing a cancer diagnosis, there’s no absolute guarantee that changing the way you eat can cure/reverse it; however, it can improve the outcome, adds Sara. “We know that a healthy diet keeps our bodies strong. Do what you can to get ahead of it. Prepare your body for that fight.”
Sara’s Quick Tips:
- Aim for a minimum of 5 servings of fruits and veggies a day. Vibrant, bright colors indicate higher levels of phytochemicals and other nutrients. Filling your plate with diverse colors is just as visually pleasing as it is nutritious.
- Level up the nutrients in things you already like to eat. You don’t necessarily have to change your whole meal plan. If you like oatmeal in the morning, add some blueberries or strawberries. If you like eggs, add some onions, peppers, and spinach. Double up your veggie serving at dinner or add more into your soups and pastas.
- Watch your portion size/follow the New American Plate method. This calls for filling your plate two thirds of the way with plant-based foods. The other third is for your lean, animal proteins.
- Stock up on produce! Whether it’s fresh or frozen, they’re both beneficial. Depending on the time of year, one may be more accessible.
- Familiarize yourself with nutrition labels. Keep your eye out for whole grain symbols and percentages of saturated fats, sodium, and added sugars.
- Prepare foods the right way. Research shows that charring/grilling goods may release cancer-causing substances. It’s healthier to cook vegetables by steaming or poaching them, so they’re cooked and savored in their own nutrient-rich juices.
- Step up other areas of your life! Remember, diet alone isn’t the answer. It’s important to also maintain your physical activity – experts recommend at least 30 minutes a day – and deal with your stress in healthy ways, limit your alcohol consumption, and avoid smoking.