One of the most effective weapons against cancer isn’t found in a hospital.
Chemotherapy, radiation and surgical intervention are all important tools in treating the disease. But in the rich green, yellow, orange and red of fresh fruits and vegetables, in the fiber-rich whole grains, in legumes such as beans, peas and lentils, people have the chance to prevent cancer in the first place.
Food is more important than you think, said Abby Emerick, a clinical dietitian and board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition at Franciscan Health Indianapolis.
“What we put into our bodies; we really are truly what we eat. When we put junk in, it makes us feel junky on the outside. When we eat something good, it helps,” she said.
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The exact way diet impacts cancer risk is unknown, but health officials agree what you eat and drink can have a massive impact on the chances of developing the disease.
That makes nutrition an integral tool in keeping cancer at bay.
Even small changes can have big impacts, Emerick said.
“We all know we’re going to have our ups and downs. We have to understand that life happens; there’s going to be celebrations, and there’s going to be weekends or bad days when we might not eat perfectly,” she said. “But diet really does play a huge part of cancer prevention and getting our immune systems strong.”
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, 1 in 4 people in the U.S. will develop cancer at some point in their lives. Nearly 1.7 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in 2019.
Certain factors, such as genetics and environment, are untouchable in terms of reducing your cancer risk. But research shows that about 40% of cancer cases are preventable, meaning about 694,000 cases of cancer could be prevented each year.
Diet is one of the simplest lifestyle changes you can make, Emerick said.
“What we put into our bodies, and how we’re using and moving our bodies, is the biggest factor,” she said. “The No. 1 cancer prevention tip is to be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.”
Through her job, Emerick often works with cancer patients at Franciscan Health Cancer Center. Her focus with them is to take the research and knowledge that medicine knows regarding nutrition and cancer, and try to use it to help patients before, during and after treatment.
She relies on the American Institute for Cancer Research, as well as the World Cancer Research Fund, which provides top recommendations on diet and cancer prevention.
“They’re the ones who are doing the research, have the science behind it and the studies,” she said.
Being obese or overweight leaves a person at increased risk for nearly a dozen kinds of cancers: esophageal, liver, kidney, stomach, colorectal, advanced prostate, breast, gallbladder, pancreatic, ovarian and endometrial, or the lining of the uterus.
One of the foremost recommendations is eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables — particularly those with bright colors — whole grains and legumes.
“I use the rule of thumb: If it can stain your shirt, it’s probably a good cancer-fighting fruit or vegetable,” Emerick said. “The richer the color, those are the ones with lots of antioxidants and have those anti-cancer properties.”
Limit fast foods and processed foods that are high in fat, starches and sugar. Also, limit red meat and avoid processed meat. A link has been found between those foods and cancer, so if you’re going to eat meat, opt for more white meats, such as chicken or turkey.
Emerick doesn’t advocate for one diet or another, such as going all vegan, keto or paleo. Rather, the key is making good choices overall in what you eat.
“We know that there is power in plants. The more plant-based diet is ideal, but we also know meat and animal products can fit perfectly fine into a diet that’s great for cancer prevention,” she said. “It’s not doing one extreme or the other.”
Paired with good diet, physical activity is key to reducing the risk of cancer. The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends 30 minutes of activity each day, such as walking, cycling, dancing, even general gardening. As fitness improves, increase that to 60 minutes of moderate activity or 30 minutes of vigorous activity.
Emerick helps her patients understand that, and shows them how to start making small changes to improve their health. She knows that being faced with so many changes can be daunting, and often can discourage people before they even begin to alter their diet.
So it’s important to offer support with each tiny step.
“Often times when I meet people, they feel terrible. They have a lot of anxiety and fear about cancer, so, just empowering people to start small and gradually add on,” Emerick said. “Make progress, and keep on with their healthy habits.”
Ten cancer prevention recommendations
1. Be a healthy weight: Try to keep your weight in the healthy range and avoid weight gain in adult life.
2. Physical activity: Be physically active as part of everyday life—walk more and sit less.
3. Eat a diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans: Make whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes such as beans and lentils a major part of your normal diet.
4. Limit consumption of “fast foods” and other processed foods that are high in fat, starches or sugars: Limiting these products helps you control your calorie intake, and makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
5. Limit consumption of red and processed meat: Eat no more than moderate amounts (12-18 ounces per week) of red meat, such as beef, pork, and lamb. Eat little, if any, processed meat.
6. Limit consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks: Drink mostly water and unsweetened drinks.
7. Limit alcohol consumption: For cancer prevention, its best not to drink alcohol.
8. Do not use supplements for cancer prevention: Aim to meet your nutritional needs through diet alone.
9. Breastfeed your baby, if you can. Breastfeeding is good for both mother and baby.
10. After a cancer diagnosis, follow these recommendations, if you can: Check with your health professional about what is right for you.
Source: American Institute of Cancer Research