Eat to Help Prevent Cancer

Last Editorial Review: 4/9/2007

Your lifestyle - including the foods you eat -- can make a big difference in your cancer risk.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

Everyone knows there are certain foods that are good for your health, and then there are the other foods - the ones we often have a hard time saying no to. An American Cancer Society survey revealed our top five irresistible foods, and the good news is that these foods not only can fit into a healthy diet but in some cases may even help prevent cancer!  Topping the list was chocolate, followed by pizza (and other Italian food). Cakes, cookies and muffins were third, then hamburgers, and last, seafood.

The key to eating these foods (or your own favorites) and still reducing cancer risk is to eat them in small portions, along with large portions of disease-fighting plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans. Small portions are essential because there is a strong link between being overweight and many types of cancer.

"As many as one-third of all cancer deaths could be prevented through good nutrition, physical activity, and being at a healthy weight," says Colleen Doyle, RD, nutrition and physical activity director for the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Tweak Favorites to Help Prevent Cancer

If you don't like a certain food, no matter how good it is for you, chances are you won't eat it.   Knowing how people make food choices, the ACS looked for health benefit in the foods we prefer. 

Many of our favorite foods contain good-for-you ingredients along with less healthy ingredients. For example, chocolate contains healthy flavonols (though it also has plenty of fat and sugar).  Pizza is a rich source of disease-fighting lycopene, but it can also be loaded with high-fat cheese and toppings. That's why it's important to exercise restraint. 

"Enjoy a piece of veggie or plain pizza but stop at one and add a side salad," suggests Doyle. Or indulge your sweet tooth and have one cookie -- along with a piece of fruit.

As for that American favorite, the hamburger, just be sure to use extra-lean hamburger meat, skip the high fat toppings, and pile on the lettuce, tomato and other veggies. When it comes to heart-healthy seafood, top grilled or baked (anything but fried!) fish with fresh-squeezed lemon or tomato salsa to get your omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C.

Eat Smart to Prevent Cancer

The best overall diet is one that includes plenty of whole, natural foods that are also good sources of fiber, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans, says David Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.

But there are certain "super" foods that are particularly rich in disease-fighting antioxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients. The American Institute of Cancer Research web site suggests:

  • Berries
  • Grapes and grape juice
  • Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables
  • Tomatoes
  • Garlic
  • Soy
  • Green tea
  • Flaxseed

Grotto says he would also add pomegranate and omega-3-rich salmon or walnuts to the list.

"The beauty of it all is that many different foods work together, so the sum is greater than the individual parts at protecting health and warding off cancer," he says.

Experts agree that about two-thirds of your calories should come from these super-nutritious foods. They also agree there are some foods you should steer clear of.  

"Avoid foods that have are high in trans and saturated fats," says Grotto. "Stay clear of foods with chemicals like preservatives and nitrates and the ones found in large fish (dioxins and PCBs) or charred meat."   

Moderate alcohol consumption has been shown to be good for your heart, but the key word here is moderate. If you drink alcohol, it's best to limit it to one drink per day for women and two for men because at higher amounts, the risk for cancer increases.

"If you don't drink alcohol, you can incur the same heart-healthy benefits by getting moderate exercise and eating a healthy diet, so we don't encourage anyone to start drinking if they don't already do so," says Doyle. 

Of course, eating the right foods is just part of the equation for preventing cancer.

"Americans want the magic bullet or secret nutrient that is the simple answer to cancer prevention, but it is more complicated than that, and includes a whole host of other factors, including genetics and lifestyle," Grotto says.

What's most important is an overall healthy lifestyle that includes:

  • Not smoking
  • Getting moderate exercise
  • Eating a nutritious diet
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

Indeed, maintaining healthy weight is very important for reducing your cancer risk.

"There are over 100 clinical studies linking increased body mass index (BMI) with a variety of different cancers," says Grotto.  Adds Doyle: "There is an incredible association between being overweight and cancer, especially breast cancer among postmenopausal women, and colon cancer."

Other cancers that have been linked to overweight include kidney, gallbladder, esophageal, and uterine. Being overweight also increases your risk for diabetes and heart disease.

"People who are overweight have higher levels of circulating insulin and estrogen levels, and we know those are tied to cell and tumor growth, which is why it is so important to get to a healthy weight," says Doyle.  When you lose weight, those levels drop -- along with your cancer risk.

With nearly two-thirds of Americans overweight -- including 30% who are obese -- the problem is serious.  What makes it worse is that most Americans are unaware of the link. Doyle estimates that only 1% of the population knows about the association between overweight and cancer risk.

That's why the American Cancer Society has launched the "Great American Eat Right Challenge" ( This interactive web site with tips and tools is aimed at helping Americans overcome the challenges associated with being overweight, eating right, and fitting exercise into their daily routines.


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It's a Lifestyle Thing

The bottom line is that to prevent cancer you need to look at the big picture. Getting regular exercise that is moderate in intensity; eating a wholesome diet; not smoking; and maintaining a normal weight are the most effective ways to reduce cancer risk.

Together, these lifestyle factors -- along with your favorite form of stress reduction, such as prayer or meditation, plus getting enough sleep -- will all work to provide the best defense against cancer and other chronic diseases. 

Published April 2007.

SOURCES: Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, director of nutrition and physical activity, American Cancer Society. Dave Grotto, RD, spokesman, American Dietetic Association. American Institute of Cancer Research web site. Cancer Facts & Figures Prevention and Early Detection 2006, American Cancer Society. U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2005 US Dietary Guidelines.

© 2007 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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