A Cancer Prevention Diet: Easier Than You Think
If you hear the words, cancer prevention diet, and think it must be really boring, or hard to follow, think again! In fact, the most interesting and delicious diets in the world are closely linked to cancer prevention.
Food that is fresh from the earth, cooked with interesting spices and in a variety of combinations is not only tantalizing to the taste buds, it also prevents many of the common diseases of old age that are common in modern society.
The opposite side of that coin is also true. Industrially produced food in boxes, plastic containers, or from mass production restaurants is really boring if eaten day after day.
Admit it: do you get really excited about yet another fried burger on a soggy bun, washed down with artificially flavored sugar water?
Why do we keep eating mass produced processed foods when they are really so uninteresting? Could it be that we have just given in to the relentless advertising in the middle of stressful busy lives? And could it also be that the food manufacturers know how to manipulate the flavor with enough salt, sugar, and fat to addict our brains?
I think both of those are true to some degree. But whatever the reason, science is increasingly clear that our “standard American diet” (s.A.d.) is contributing to a list of maladies that includes cancer, heart disease, diabetes, liver disease, and dementia.
What is a cancer prevention diet then? Let me break it down into a few simple points and then go into more detail on other specific pages. Remember that there is really not a single disease called “cancer,” and types of cancer can be very different in their causes, prevention, and cures. But there are a few broad strategies that can be applied across the board for cancer prevention. Food is a powerful ally for you when you know how!
First the foods to enjoy in abundance for your cancer prevention diet; this is your “to do list.”
–Healthy oils and fats: really? Yes, consider your choice of oils to be a foundation of decreasing inflammation in the body, which is one of the roots of cancer. Choose omega three oils from oily fish such as sardines, wild Alaskan salmon, and black cod; enjoy extra virgin olive oil for cooking and dressings; snack on walnuts; use flax seeds as a topping for your oatmeal or yogurt; enjoy avocados. All these provide essential oils to decrease inflammation and cancer risk.
–A rainbow of vegetables and fruit daily: no surprise there, you’ve heard that since childhood, but now we know why. The very same phytochemicals which give them a rainbow of colors also are the most potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory food components known. Dr. David Heber gave us the simplest way to achieve a cancer prevention diet on a daily basis in his book What Color is Your Diet? Every day, aim to enjoy some fresh produce item from each color of the rainbow: purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, and red.
–Whole grains: I hope this does not come as a surprise to you, considering how “carbohydrate phobia” has become widespread. Whole grains provide healthy oils, protein, fiber, and slow-release carbohydrates which provide energy without a sugar rush. They are also good sources of antioxidants such as Vitamin E and selenium. Their fiber content prevents rapid surges of blood insulin levels which can promote tumor growth and eating whole grains has been linked with colorectal cancer prevention. Whole grains are grains that are still visible (either raw or cooked), such as oats, cracked wheat (bulgur), quinoa, brown rice, and millet, but would not include most breads (the grain has been pulverized).
–Anti-inflammatory spices: many of the spices that give foods around the world interesting flavors also help prevent disease. Ginger, turmeric, garlic, onions, all have well documented roles in cancer prevention. “Food as medicine” was never more true than for spices.
–Tea: you’ve heard all the press about green tea? It’s true. Green tea alone or in combination with other foods has potent anti-cancer properties. And so does white tea, black tea, and oolong tea. Tea and cancer prevention is an exciting field to study.
Are there foods to avoid for your cancer prevention diet? Yes, and let me make it as simple as possible for you here. This is your “don’t list.”
–Charred meats: I call it the chemistry experiment on your grill. Meats that have been charred or cooked at very high temperatures form cancer causing chemicals in the meat. Slow cooking is better, and can also lead to a very tasty and tender piece of meat for dinner. And higher amounts of meat consumption have been associated with higher risk of colon cancer.
–Excess alcohol: Alcohol has been found to be a causative factor in many different types of cancer, including colon, mouth and throat, liver and breast. I recommend that women limit alcohol use to 5 drinks per week, and men can probably be safe at twice that amount, though there is a small increase in cancer risk even at small amounts of drinking.
–Excess sweets: the easiest way to explain this link is with two words, insulin and obesity. Excess sweets drives up levels of insulin repeatedly in the body, which can promote the growth of tumor cells; and obese people as a group have higher rates of cancer than lean individuals. In fact, type 2 diabetes is a major risk factor for cancer. So enjoy sweets from time to time, but eat just a little and take your time with it and enjoy every small bite!
–Unhealthy oils: while oils and fats can be a foundation of a cancer prevention diet, oils can also promote cancer. Trans-fats are the prime example, and also oil that has been superheated to smoking levels or boiled repeatedly for frying.
–Foods altered by biotechnology: I am firmly opposed to the use of bovine growth hormone in dairy products and am happy to see that increasingly the big dairy companies are stopping its use. I am hopeful that the same will be true soon with genetically modified foods (GMO’s). There is very compelling evidence that GMO foods are associated with disease risks and that a cancer prevention diet should not include their intake.
I hope these simple guidelines give you a sense of hope and optimism, because your conscious choices in your weekly grocery shopping and cooking can make a big difference. With close to one in three cancers preventable by diet choices, I have given you some powerful tools in the prevention game.
If you have not been a cook and don’t know where to start, call a friend and share the excitement together as you tackle the challenge of learning some new skills. Maybe plan a special meal together to kick off a new era of interesting, tasty and life-saving foods, in your new cancer prevention diet!
To your health and wellness,
Robert Pendergrast, M.D.