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Cancer Prevention Starts With What You Eat


Foods that can help you avoid cancer are delicious, easy to find

The American Institute for Cancer Research estimates that almost 375,000 cancer cases could be prevented with nutrition, activity and maintaining a healthy weight. “Their recommendations include eating a variety of plant-based foods, decreasing sodium intake and sugary drinks, decreasing red meat, restricting processed meats and limiting alcohol intake to a moderate amount,” says Christi Kirk, RD, CSO, a registered dietitian and board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert.

Importance of fruits, veggies

Fruits and vegetables contain what are known as “phytonutrients.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, these components are thought to promote human health. Fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and teas are rich sources of phytonutrients.


Variety in foods is key when talking about a cancer preventative diet, Kirk says. “When looking at fruits and vegetables, we want to encourage eating different kinds.” These include cruciferous—cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, bok choy, kale, watercress, turnips, arugula, radishes and wasabi—as well as citrus and those that are deep orange, dark green leafy and red, she says. “Many of these fruits and vegetables have similar nutrient profiles, so if you aren’t a fan of broccoli, try cauliflower or bok choy. If you don’t like tomatoes, try red peppers.”

Since each phytonutrient does something different in the body, it’s important to get a wide variety for optimal health, she added. “The name of the game when looking at these different colors and types of produce is to experiment to fit them into your diet and enjoy their flavor,” Kirk says. “There are two ways to accomplish this; try different recipes at home or if you see something on the menu while eating out, try it.”

By the numbers

Kirk says an ideal cancer-prevention diet should include these quantities every day:

  • 5 servings of fruits and vegetables, based on a variety of types and colors.
  • 3 servings of whole grains (either  ½ cup grain, 1 slice of whole-grain bread or 3 cups air-popped corn)
  • 1 serving of plant proteins, such as beans, nuts and seeds. One serving of beans is typically ½ cup; one serving of nuts and seeds is typically ¼ cup. “These contain phytochemicals and beneficial oils,” Kirk said.
  • 1 5-6 ounce serving of lean protein such as fish or chicken.

Kirk cautions that phytonutrients encapsulated or available in dried powders likely don’t work like they do in whole foods. “While the use of vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements can sometimes be appropriate when recommended by a medical professional, these items should not be counted on for cancer prevention, which is why we encourage the ‘Food First’ concept,” she says. “According to research, there is no substitute for a varied, plant-based diet when looking for a cancer prevention diet.”

By Debra Gelbart
Cancer Nutrition