Can Diet Play a Role In Cancer Prevention?

How much do your eating habits affect your risk for cancer? Probably more than you think. Check out the latest on what foods may help prevent cancer.

How much do your daily eating habits affect your risk for cancer? Probably more than you think. Along with quitting smoking and exercising regularly, the best way to cut your risk of cancer is to eat well and watch your weight. And that's in your favor: Your lifestyle habits, including how you choose to eat, are under your control.

Here are some eating tips based on the latest cancer prevention guidelines:

Increase servings of fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains. Research consistently shows that a diet high in antioxidant-rich plant foods may offer protection from several types of cancer.

  • Whole, plant-based foods provide a wide array of vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients. These are plant compounds that have been shown to help fight disease.
  • Experts do not know which of the many compounds in these foods are most helpful, so a wide variety of all types is best.
  • Look for fruits and vegetables of varying colors and flavors. Wash them thoroughly first.
  • Try different types of whole grains such as barley, quinoa and bulgur.
  • Add beans to soups and salads.
  • Toss raw nuts into casseroles or cereal.

A whole foods diet (with limited amounts of processed foods) is also helpful for weight control. Obesity is a known cancer risk.

Choose whole foods over supplements. Don't rely on supplements to protect against cancer. They do not give you the same benefits as a healthy diet.

  • Experts believe that it is the combination of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals in whole foods that contribute to cancer protection. They don't think it's the isolated compounds in a supplement that helps.

Get enough calcium and vitamin D. Several studies have suggested that foods high in calcium and vitamin D may help cut the risk for some types of cancer. But a high calcium intake, mainly through supplements, has been linked with higher risk for prostate cancer.

  • Both men and women should try to get the recommended levels of calcium, mainly from food sources.
  • More research is needed to define the best levels of intake and blood levels of vitamin D to reduce cancer risk. A balanced diet, supplements and limited sun exposure are usually the best methods of getting vitamin D.

Limit red and processed meats. A diet that is high in red meats and processed meats (cured, smoked and salted) may raise our risk of certain types of cancer.

  • Experts say this may be due to nitrites. These are preservatives that are added to many luncheon meats, hams and hot dogs to maintain color and to prevent bacterial growth.
  • Methods of cooking meats at very high temperatures (frying, broiling, or grilling) may create cancer-causing compounds that can increase risk.

Keep fat intake to less than 30 percent of total calories. Research has not been able to show that overall fat intake affects cancer risk.

  • However, diets high in fat tend to be high in calories. This can contribute to obesity, which is linked to an increased risk of several types of cancer.
  • Certain types of fats, such as saturated or processed polyunsaturated fats, may raise cancer risk.

Limit your alcohol intake. Excess alcohol raises the risk of several types of cancer. Men should have no more than two drinks and women no more than one drink a day.

So on your next trip to the market, linger in the produce section. Eating well to decrease cancer risk goes hand in hand with other disease prevention strategies, too. Good nutrition can go a long way toward lowering your risk for heart disease, diabetes and some other chronic diseases as well.