The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that 30 and 50 percent of the most common cancers might be preventable through diet and lifestyle changes. Dietary changes won’t eliminate your cancer risk, but incorporating these guidelines may significantly reduce it.
Your Dietary Pattern Matters
A motto of the prolific food author Michael Pollan is “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I like to use his motto to describe dietary patterns that ward off chronic diseases.
Eat (Real) Food—With some exceptions, real food spoils quickly. Strive to purchase foods with ingredients you could buy in the market.
Lean on Plants—Nutrient density and fiber are two characteristics of whole plant foods, and people eating more plant-based tend to have less cancer risk. According to researchers, a fiber-rich diet (including two cups of fruit and five servings of vegetables a day) can reduce the risk of cancer, including esophageal, lung, liver, stomach, and some mouth and throat cancers. In one study, researchers saw a 10 percent drop in death risk for every five-gram incremental increase in daily dietary fiber. This is the amount in common portions like a cup of oatmeal, a tablespoon of chia seeds, or a third cup of canned beans. Devote two-thirds of your plate to vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains.
Not Too Much—Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce cancer risk. Set aside the diet mentality and instead eat when you are hungry and stop eating when you are 85 percent satisfied.
Strive for Five
While learning to lean on plants, eating at least five servings of non-starchy vegetables is a good starting point. All non-starchy vegetables count toward your five half-cup servings. Non-starchy vegetables significantly outnumber carb-rich vegetables (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, peas, winter squash, and parsnips), which can also be part of a diverse plant-based diet. Researchers have identified over 4,000 plant chemicals (phytonutrients) in various vegetables and fruits, and you get the most health protection from eating an abundant variety.
While strolling through the frozen food aisle, look for vegetables you like. Though they may not spoil quickly, they are classified as “real,” provided they don’t contain unrecognizable ingredients. You can cover a sheet pan with various frozen vegetables, toss them with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil, a sprinkle of salt, and a few grinds of black pepper and roast in a 425-degree oven for 25 minutes.
Cruciferous vegetables are members of the cabbage family that provide unique cancer-fighting properties. Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Bok choy, turnip greens, kale, cabbage, cauliflower, horseradish, and kohlrabi are rich in antioxidants, which help protect against cancer. Studies have shown that people who eat a lot of cruciferous vegetables have lower cancer rates than those who don’t. Most likely, the cancer-protective effects of the crucifers result from a synergistic interaction of components of the vegetables, which include sulforaphane, beta carotene, anthocyanin and vitamin C. Research suggests that a diet high in vitamin C could prevent pulmonary, breast and pancreatic cancers. A cancer-protecting protein, indole-3-carbinol, is likely produced during digestion.
Cooking for Optimal Nutrition
One way to maximize the sulforaphane is to chop the broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, collards, or cauliflower and then wait 40 minutes. Chopping and exposing these vegetables to the air activates the enzyme that creates heat-stable sulforaphane.
Steaming on the stovetop or in the microwave is an excellent method for preserving vegetables’ nutrients. Stir-frying is also a good way to maximize flavor and nutrition.
Roasting vegetables enhances their natural sweetness.
Pureeing vegetables in soups and smoothies may improve their palatability.
Nancy Teeter is a Registered Dietitian and a SaddleBrooke resident. Though mostly retired, she is passionate about sharing her nutrition knowledge with others. This information should not replace advice from your medical provider.