The idea that diet plays a large role in our health has been around for thousands of years. Egyptian records dating as far back as 5000 BC show food being used for health and healing. Hippocrates (460-370 BC), the father of modern medicine, advised: “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”
Today we still believe in the importance of nutrition for our health, especially in preventing and treating chronic diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and even cancer. But with the abundance of information available these days, it is hard to separate fact from fiction. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, I am sure you had friends, family, and even strangers offering their opinions on what you should eat, or recommending books, articles, and websites containing information on the latest “cancer-fighting” foods and diets. These recommendations are often conflicting, leaving many people feeling overwhelmed and confused.
Making Sense of Cancer Nutrition Research
Thanks to advances in science and technology, we are now able to study and understand the relationship between diet and cancer better than ever. However, findings from scientific studies are not always accurate. Poor design and bad science can influence the results.
Even well-designed, high-quality studies have limitations, and what we observe in single cells in the lab may not reflect what happens in the whole body. Keep this in mind when you hear about cancer nutrition studies, especially those that sound too good to be true. As tempting as it is to believe that a single fruit could cure your cancer, or that eliminating a food group will keep cancer at bay, the truth is often much more complex.
Cancer Prevention and Survivorship
The best nutrition recommendations for cancer prevention and survivorship are based on quality scientific studies that have found consistent results across different research m e t h o d s . The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is an organization funding research on nutrition, physical activity, and cancer prevention and survivorship. In addition to funding many nutrition and cancer studies, AICR researchers evaluate thousands of studies about diet, physical activity, and cancer. Using only results from welldesigned, good quality studies, they look for recurring themes that could suggest a strong link between certain foods, body composition, activity levels, and different types of cancer. From this they have developed 8 nutrition and physical activity recommendations for cancer prevention and survivorship that are considered the best by cancer and nutrition experts.
Plant-Based Diet and the New American Plate
According to the AICR, the best way to reduce the risk for cancer is by combining a plantbased diet with regular exercise, which can reduce the risk by as much as 30% to 40%. Using a plant-based diet does not mean avoiding all animal foods; it simply means getting the majority of your food from plant sources. Plant foods include:
- Whole grains
- Seeds (including dark chocolate and coffee!)
Plantfoods have many health benefits. They are typically low in calories, contain mostly healthy fats, and are rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytochemicals. The AICR uses the New American Plate as an easy visual tool to meet plant-based recommendation of 2/3 or more of the plate with plant foods and 1/3 of the plate or less with healthy animal proteins.
Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors daily to maximize your health benefits. Try not to boil them, because this leeches out important nutrients. Enjoy them raw, sautéed, roasted, grilled, or steamed.
Phytochemicals are naturally occurring chemicals in plants that are responsible for their color, smell, and taste. They also provide many health benefits, and are among the most exciting new areas of cancer nutrition research. Phytochemicals help protect against and fight cancer by:
- Acting as antioxidants
- Reducing inflammation
- Slowing cancer growth
- Killing cancer cells!
Tomatoes get their red color from the lycopene—this powerful phytochemical can slow tumor growth and acts as an antioxidant; tomatoes stand out in their ability to fight against prostate cancer.
The distinct smell of Garlic comes from the phytochemical allicin, which can help to stop cancer-cell growth and rid the body of cancer-causing chemicals.
That spicy taste in Chili Peppers comes from the phytochemical capsaicin: it acts as an antioxidant, reduces inflammation, and may help to stop cancer cells from migrating (spreading) throughout the body.
Because phytochemicals in a plant work together to provide greater health benefits than you would get if you consumed a phytochemical in isolation, it is recommended that you choose the whole food rather than a pill or powder supplement.
- American Institute for Cancer Research
- AICR/Diet-What We Eat
- BMI Calculator
- National Cancer Institute
- Cook for Your Life
- Cancer Fighting Kitchen by Rebecca Katz