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Reducing cancer risk through what we eat.

  • 04.18.2015

Berries Cancer Foods - Sierra Nevada Cancer Center

For many of us, summertime means outdoor eating and barbequing with friends. It means cold beer, hot dogs, potato salad, and chips. Unfortunately, many of these favorite summertime foods are not good for us – not for our waistlines, our hearts, or for our cancer risk.

Here's the good news: we can actually lower our cancer risk by what we put in our mouths. It's not as difficult as you may think to make our summertime and year-round eating a lot healthier.

"Researchers estimate that in the U.S., we can prevent about 38 percent of breast cancers with some basic healthy steps."
-Karen Collins, nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research

Limit meat on the grill

The connection between red meat and cancer risk has been pretty well established, particularly the risk for colorectal cancer. However, the way you prepare your meat has a big impact on how much that meat contributes to your cancer risk.

Cooking meats on a BBQ grill at very high temperatures creates chemicals (heterocyclic amines, or HAs) that might increase cancer risk. HAs are created by the burning of amino acids and other substances. A 2009 study followed 62,000 people over 9 years and found that those with the highest intake of very well done meat had a 70% higher risk for pancreatic cancer over those with lowest consumption and those who preferred very well-done steak were almost 60% more likely to get pancreatic cancer as those who ate steak less well-done or did not eat steak.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends no more than 18 oz. (cooked weight) per week of red meats (beef, pork, lamb) to reduce cancer risk. Processed meats such as ham, bacon, salami, hot dogs and sausage should be consumed very sparingly as they are linked to colorectal and stomach cancers.

Smart solutions:

  • Choose lean cuts of meat and trim excess fat
  • If you grill, line grill with foil and poke small holes in it so the fat can drip off without generating smoke
  • Avoid charring meat or eating parts that are especially burned and black
  • Braise, steam, poach, or stew meat instead of hot grilling
  • Choose chicken, turkey, or fish instead of red meat
  • Eat smaller portions of meat less often

Choose plants

Many cancer prevention studies, including the American Cancer Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund's ((ACRI/WCRF) comprehensive global report, point to a plant-based diet to lower the risk of many cancers.

Why plants? The body seems to use certain nutrients (vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, folate) in vegetables and fruits to protect against damage to tissues that happens constantly as a result of normal metabolism. Because this damage is linked with increased cancer risk, the so-called antioxidant nutrients are thought to protect against cancer. Studies suggest that people who eat more vegetables and fruits, which are rich sources of antioxidants, may have a lower risk for some types of cancer.

Additionally, vegetables and fruits are low in calories and these foods help people get to and maintain a healthy weight. According to the ACRI/WCRF report, carrying excess body fat increases the risk of seven cancers (esophagus, pancreas, colon and rectum, endometrium, kidney, postmenopausal breast, and gallbladder).

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology also found that the likelihood of developing estrogen-receptor negative breast cancer was 20 percent less when women followed a vegetable rich diet with little meat. For breast cancer in particular, the consumption of walnuts slowed cancer cell growth in mice, and antioxidants found in peaches and plums were show to kill breast cancer cells.

Smart solutions:

  • Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes such as bean
  • Choose foods high in carotenoids (lots of reds, orange, yellow and dark green) including: carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, red peppers, winter squash, apricot, mangoes, tomatoes, pink grapefruit
  • Aim to add cancer-fighting super foods to your diet
1 Great Plate - Sierra Nevada Cancer Center

Super cancer-fighting foods

The American Cancer Institute for Cancer Research has identified these foods, both for their individual anti-cancer properties and as part of a varied diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes. (Read more about cancer fighting foods)

  • Apples
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli & Cruciferous Vegetables
  • Cherries
  • Coffee
  • Cranberries
  • Flaxseed
  • Grapefruit
  • Legumes (Dry Beans, Peas & Lentils)
  • Soy
  • Squash (Winter)
  • Berries
  • Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
Cancer Food
  • Garlic
  • Grapes and Grape Juice
  • Green Tea
  • Tomatoes
  • Whole Grains
  • Acai Berries
  • Blackberries & Raspberries
  • Carrots
  • Chili Peppers
  • Citrus Fruits (oranges/lemons)
  • Kale and Other Greens
  • Mushrooms
  • Nuts
  • Onions
  • Papayas
  • Pomegranates
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Walnuts
  • Watermelon & Other Melons
Watermelon & Other Melons - Sierra Nevada Cancer Center

Raise a toast to being alcohol-free

Even a moderate amount of alcohol is "clearly linked" to an increased risk of mouth, throat, voice box, esophagus, liver, breast, and probably colon and rectum cancer, as well. Regular intake of even a few drinks per week is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer in women, especially in women who do not get enough folate. Women at high risk of breast cancer may want to consider not drinking any alcohol.

Smart solutions:

  • Set healthy limits. No more than 2 drinks per day for men and 1 drink per day for women. (A drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)
  • Put the focus on fun, alcohol-free cocktails and drinks at your events, even when you are offering alcohol

Control fat intake and portion size

There is evidence that certain types of fats, such as saturated fats, may increase cancer risk. High-fat diets tend to lead to weight gain and obesity is linked with an increased risk of several types of cancer. A 2012 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute linked high-fat dairy foods with a higher risk of dying from breast cancer. High-fat dairy includes whole milk, cream and anything made with them, such as cheese and ice cream.

Smart solutions:

  • Limit fatty meats, high-fat dairy and processed foods
  • Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight
  • Incorporate physical activity into daily life

Moderation should always be our guide when it comes to our diets. Focus on the good foods and getting enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fiber. Understanding that we can impact our cancer risk by what we eat puts our health in our hands and that is a very positive thing.

Article sources

American Cancer Institute for Cancer Research website, Recommendations for Cancer Prevention, Foods that Fight Cancer, Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective, and Cancer Research Update, March 6, 2013, http://www.aicr.org/
Cancer.org website, American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention and "Healthier grilling, avoiding the dangers of charred meat," April 22, 2009, http://www.cancer.org/
US News & world Report website, "Diet Changes That Might Cut Breast Cancer Risk," May 15, 2013, http://health.usnews.com/

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