Using diet to reduce cancer risk

Using diet to reduce cancer risk

The choices you make at the grocery store have more impact than just your dinner plans. Filling your plate with foods grown in the ground may be the best diet for cancer prevention.

An estimated 1.9 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2022, according to the American Cancer Society. While some people have a higher genetic risk of developing cancer, research shows that nearly 25% of total cancer cases can be prevented with diet and nutrition alone. It can take 10 or more years for many types of cancer to appear, so daily nutritional choices are essential in preventing cancer.

Vegetarian diets are full of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, with little or no meat or other animal products. In research studies, vegetarians who don’t eat any animal products, including fish, dairy, or eggs, appear to have the lowest rates of cancer of any diet. The next lowest rate was for vegetarians, people who avoid meat but may eat fish or foods that come from animals, such as milk or eggs.

Vegetarian foods do more than just taste delicious. They are full of chemical compounds, called phytochemicals, that protect the body from damage. Phytochemicals also hinder the processes in the body that encourage cancer production. Plant-based diets are also rich in fiber, which has been shown to reduce the risk of breast and colorectal cancer.


Phytochemicals offer many benefits. In addition to protecting against damage, they reduce inflammation and interrupt the processes in the body that encourage cancer production.

Two of the most beneficial phytochemicals are:

  • Antioxidants
    This type of phytochemical protects the body from damage. Cancer develops when DNA in cells is damaged. This causes abnormal cells to divide uncontrollably, which can infiltrate and destroy normal body tissues. Cell damage can also be caused by radiation, viruses, and exposure to other chemicals. The body’s normal metabolism produces oxidants that can also cause cell damage. Antioxidants neutralize these harmful processes while protecting and restoring cells. Some foods that are high in antioxidants include dark chocolate, apples with the peel, avocado, artichokes, red cabbage, tea, coffee, nuts, and grains.
  • carotenoids
    These are fat-soluble compounds, which means they need to be accompanied by a source of fat to be absorbed. Carotenoids are found naturally in many fruits, grains, oils, and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, apricots, green peppers, and leafy greens. They are highly pigmented, so look for natural red, orange, yellow and green foods. Examples of carotenoids include beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein. They have been linked to reduced risks of heart disease, cancer, macular degeneration, and cataracts.

Many plant foods are also high in vitamins called alpha and gamma-carotene. When you take these vitamins they can be converted into vitamin A. This nutrient is important for vision, growth, cell division, reproduction, and immunity. Vitamin A also has antioxidant properties.

The nutrients and phytochemicals found in plant foods appear to work independently and in combination to reduce the risk of cancer and disease. This means that plant foods work best when eaten with other foods rather than on their own. One prostate cancer study showed that a combination of a tomato and broccoli diet was more effective at slowing tumor growth than either tomato or broccoli alone. This shows the power that nutrition has when foods are grouped together.

vegetable fiber

Vegetarian diets are rich in natural fibres. This has been shown to reduce the risk of cancer and lower moderate insulin levels. A study found that young women who ate a diet rich in fiber were 25% less likely to develop breast cancer later in life. Other research has found that every 10 grams of daily fiber can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by 10%.

Healthy bacteria in the digestive tract can ferment fiber and other starches to produce compounds known to help promote normal colon growth and reduce inflammation. These bacteria convert certain phytochemicals into more effective or more potent forms.

Eat for color and variety

There are many delicious options in a vegetarian diet. Try new fruits or vegetables, or new ways to incorporate essential nutrients.

Cost can be a factor in choosing a vegetarian diet menu, as fresh fruits and vegetables may be more expensive. Good alternatives are frozen fruits and vegetables. They are frozen quickly to preserve the nutrients and are less expensive. Canned options are also available for people on a tighter budget. Be sure to look for options without added sugar or salt.

Make sure to include at least these amounts in your diet to feel full and get the necessary phytochemicals and fiber:

  • Fruits, 1.5 to 2.5 cups per day
  • Vegetables, 2.5 to 4 cups a day
  • Whole grains, 3 to 5 ounces daily
  • Legumes 1.5 cups per week
  • Protein, 5 to 7 ounces daily. Legumes, dairy products, tofu, and eggs are excellent sources of protein. Or choose lean cuts of meat and avoid processed meats
  • Fats, 3 to 5 servings per day. One serving equals one teaspoon of oil, four walnut halves or one sixth of an avocado

Switching to a vegetarian diet

Eating a vegan diet doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Making incremental changes is more sustainable and realistic for most people. Some ways to do this include:

  • Start your day right.
    Enjoy a delicious and healthy breakfast with whole-grain oatmeal, buckwheat or quinoa, along with fruit, to give you the energy to tackle your day.
  • Try meatless meals.
    Embrace “meat-free Mondays” and try a new meat-free recipe every week.
  • Treat meat like a condiment.
    Instead of using meat as a main dish, use only a little for flavor.
  • Use legumes in large quantities.
    Reduce the amount of meat in some recipes by increasing the amount of beans, lentils or vegetables. These foods take up more space on your plate so you don’t feel deprived.
  • Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables first.
    Cover about half of your plate with fruits and vegetables for lunch and dinner.

Further investigation of foods and their functional components is bound to reveal all that a vegetarian diet has to offer. Until then, eating a variety of fruits and vegetables prepared in many ways will improve your odds of preventing cancer. And don’t forget to combine proper nutrition and plenty of exercise.

Learn more about disease-fighting foods in this webinar:

Grace Feldberg is a dietitian in Mankato, Minnesota.

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