Integrative Medicine Blog

Cancer & Risk-Reducing Nutrition

Heidi S. Puc M.D., FACP, ABIHM Sunday, January 08, 2017
Istock plant diet

What we eat has real effects on our health, especially when it comes to reducing the risk of cancer.

Did you know that what we eat can have real effects on our health, especially on our cancer risk? Although there is no single “one size fits all” diet for those at risk for, afflicted by, or recovered from cancer, we do know that cancer-preventive bioactive compounds are found mainly in foods of plant origin, and so a plant-based diet is prudent for cancer risk reduction. Cancer is a chronic disease that occurs through multiple insults to cells and tissues over time, that often escape repair by the immune system, so that over time there is malignant transformation of cells. A healthy diet can change the pathway of cancer formation by effects on the immune system, growth factors and signals, and through methylation, programmed cell death (apoptosis), anti-oxidation, and anti-inflammatory effects.

Cancer prevention guidelines, including nutrition recommendations, are published and periodically updated by the American Cancer Society (ACS)[1] as well as by the American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund (AICR/WCRF)[2]. Such guidelines include placing an emphasis on plant sources of food, food and beverage portion control to maintain healthy weight, eating at least 2.5 cups of vegetables and fruits per day, choosing whole grains rather than processed (refined) grains, minimizing consumption of processed and red meats, limiting consumption of alcoholic beverages, limiting consumption of energy-dense foods, avoiding sugary drinks, and limiting salt intake.

Examples of diets that have an evidence-base for cancer risk reduction include the Mediterranean Diet (MD) and the Anti-inflammatory Diet (AI), both of which are predominantly plant-based, high in fiber, low in sugar, rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids, and lower in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids compared to the “SAD” diet (Standard American Diet). The AI diet is similar to the MD but emphasizes consumption of berries, Asian mushrooms, some soy, tea, dark chocolate, and spices. Both diets encourage eating whole, unprocessed foods with low glycemic load, diminishing spikes in blood sugar and hence insulin. Both diets have been linked with decreased risk for not only cancer but many chronic diseases. It is prudent to choose organic foods over non-organic, as the former diminish our exposure to pesticides and other endocrine disruptors and carcinogens that are found in non-organic foods.

As obesity is directly linked with an increased risk of a variety of cancer types, attention to caloric intake, portion control, and physical activity is imperative as well. Diets high in nutrient density (vegetables, fruit, and fiber) are associated with reduced caloric intake and thus help to promote weight control.[3] Conversely, it is important to reduce energy density of the diet (dietary fat and beverages high in simple sugars) to assist in promoting weight loss and control.

Food sources of bioactive compounds which assist in cancer risk reduction include avocado (trigger apoptosis), cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli (hormone modulation, carcinogen metabolism), berries (reduced oxidative stress), orange-yellow vegetables (antioxidant, anti-inflammatory), curcumin (antioxidant, trigger apoptosis), garlic (DNA repair, cancer cell cycle arrest), grapes (resveratrol: reduce oxidative stress, anti-inflammatory), green tea (anti-inflammatory, reduces oxidative stress), and tomato products (reduces oxidative stress).[4] Also, increasing data supports eating fermented foods rich in pre- and probiotics, which help to build a favorable gut microbiome (“good bacteria”) that can decrease risk for obesity-related cancers by enhancing immunity [5] [6](Kamada, 2013, and Russell, 2013).

So to reduce your risk of cancer, choose your food wisely: good food is, simply, good medicine!


[1] American Cancer Society Facts and Figures 2012. http://www.cancer.org/acs/groups/content/@epidemio;ogysurveilance/documents/document/acspc-031941.pdf.

[2] World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research. (2007). Food, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington, DC: Author.

[3] Svendsen, M., Blomhoff, R., Holme, I., & Tonstad, S. (2007). The effect of an increased intake of vegetables and fruit on weight loss, blood pressure and antioxidant defense in subjects with sleep related breathing disorders. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 61(11), 1301-1311.

[4] Abrams D., & Weil, A. (2014). Table 5.1: Select Food Sources of Bioactive Food Components and Related Mechanisms of Cancer Risk Reduction, in Integrative Oncology, Second Edition, Oxford University Press, New York, p.98.

[5] Kamada, N., Seo, S. O, Chen G. Y., & Nunez, G. (2013). Role of the gut microbiota in immunity and inflammatory disease. Nature Reviews, 13, 321-335.

[6] Russell, W.E., Duncan, S. H., & Flint, H.J. (2013). The gut microbial metabolone: modulation of cancer risk in obese individuals. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 72 (1), 178-188.

As written for NaturTyme.

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