Fighting cancer through diet and lifestyle
Everyone wants to be healthy and fight cancer, but creating a plan and seeing it through requires effort. There's not one food that will prevent cancer—or even cure it—which is why it's important that your diet includes a combination of foods that will benefit your overall health.
Foods that are healthy for our bodies contain phytochemicals or neutraceuticals—powerful compounds found in fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts. A few examples of these types of foods that you'll want to incorporate into your diet include quercetin, flavonoids, epicatechin and triterpenoids. In general, the more colorful the food, the more healthy it is. Additional foods to consider:
- Apples are available year round and a rich source of antioxidants, which can help reverse damage from sun and chemical exposure. These compounds are found in the skin of apples so wash your fruit, but don't peel it. In addition, red apples provide anti-inflammatory benefits, and are a good source of vitamin C and fiber. So, the old saying is true—an apple a day may actually keep the doctor away.
- Blueberries contain a powerful phytochemical that gives them their blue color. Blueberries are also a good source of vitamin C and K, manganese and fiber.
- You’ve likely been told, “eat your broccoli; its good for you”. Well, it's true—broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables such as brussels sprouts, rapini, green cabbage, cauliflower and turnips are members of the mustard family, providing antioxidants, vitamin C and fiber. Glucosinolates are the sulfur-containing chemicals that are responsible for the distinct aroma and bitter taste of these vegetables. They act as natural pesticides and are believed to have anti-cancer properties.
- Legumes such as peas, beans, peanuts, soybeans and lentils are a good source of lean protein. They're also high in fiber and a source of folate, which produces and maintains new cells, and helps prevent changes to DNA that may lead to cancer. Additionally, legumes contain lignans, saponins and resistant starch, all of which may help protect against cancer.
- Flaxseed is a good source of fiber, copper, thiamine, manganese and magnesium. In addition, it provides omega 3 fatty acids and lignans. Lignans contain antioxidant qualities whereas omega 3 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that our bodies need to function. Flaxseed can be hard for your body to digest; grinding it so your body can easily absorb it is best. Be sure to keep it refrigerated in a sealed package to retain its antioxidants.
- Cherries are another great source of fiber, vitamin C and potassium. The deep red color of cherries also means they contain a high level of anti-inflammatory chemicals.
- Garlic contains allium, which is also found in onions, scallions, leeks and chives. Allium may help reduce stomach cancer.
- Grapes and grape juice provide resveratrol, another antioxidant found in the skin of red and purple grapes. Wine contains this compound, but isn't a recommended source due to the alcohol content.
- Green tea contains catechins, which can only be found in tea. Green tea contains three times more catechins than black tea.
- Tomatoes contain lycopene, which may protect against prostate cancer. Tomato paste in particular provides a highly concentrated dose of lycopene and isn't destroyed by cooking.
- Whole grains can be confusing when you’re trying to figure out what food to buy. The term "whole grain" means all three parts of the grain kernel (germ, bran and endosperm) are included in the product. Refined grains have the bran and germ removed during processing.
- Whole grains provide specific antioxidants that have been linked to lowering cancer risk. Choose whole grains such as wild rice, brown rice, oatmeal, popcorn (without butter), bulgur wheat and buckwheat.
- As you can see, foods contain powerful nutrients that can help your body. To be healthy, you'll want to include at least 2 ½ cups of fruits and vegetables per day—especially the fruits and vegetables listed above. If you don't currently eat fruit or vegetables, start by eating one serving per day, which is equivalent to ½ cup.
- For additional health benefits, avoid processed meats such as lunch meat, hot dogs, bacon and sausage. Red meat, including beef, along with pork and lamb, should be limited to no more than 18 ounces per week.
Healthy weight and exercise
Another way to improve your health is to exercise regularly. The American Cancer Society recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week. Moderate exercise is when your heart rate increases slightly while vigorous exercise is when your body temperature increases so that you start to sweat and feel out of breath. If the thought of beginning an exercise routine sounds daunting, take it one step at a time—literally. Park in the back of the lot, get off the bus a block or two early or get off the elevator and walk a few flights up the stairs. If you can gradually increase activity, even at low intensity, it's better than no movement at all.
Maintaining or achieving a healthy weight is one more step you can take to reduce your risk for cancer. Research has shown that excess body weight can increase your cancer risk. A normal body weight is a body mass index (BMI) between 19 and 25. It's important to know your BMI so you can be aware of where you fall in different weight categories. If you're in the obese category and can move to the overweight category, it can have a positive impact on your health.
Common ways to lose weight include limiting your intake of high-calorie foods and drinks. For instance, consuming a high-calorie coffee drink five days a week for a year, could mean an intake of an extra 120,000 calories. If you didn't burn those calories, you could gain up to 34 pounds over the course of a year.
Where to begin?
First, list your diet and lifestyle risk factors. Do you skip eating fruits and vegetables daily? Do you eat too much red meat and processed foods? Are you overweight? Do you drink too much alcohol? Do you avoid exercise? Pick one of these factors to tackle. If food is your challenge, start by adding one of the powerful fruits for breakfast such as apples, blueberries, cherries or grapes. Once you eat fruits and vegetables on a daily basis, tackle your next risk factor. Each step you take to improve your overall lifestyle can decrease your chance of developing cancer and help you live a longer healthier life.
For more information
For more information on fighting cancer through diet and lifestyle, call to make an appointment with one of our registered dietitians at 612-672-6700.
For additional articles on nutrition and healthy eating, visit our health library.