I recently did a talk at our Hope Floats Festival for cancer survivors on evidence-based recommendations for cancer prevention for people with and without cancer. The recommendations come from the American Institute of Cancer Research and World Cancer Research Fund’s report on Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective. The report took six years to produce. Ultimately, over 7,000 scientific studies were deemed relevant and were presented to a panel of 21 scientists, who judged the evidence and developed the recommendations. The evidence database is kept up to date as new research develops. Below is not a comprehensive list of the findings, but it includes the things I feel are most important.
1) Put plant foods first.
Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds. These foods are lower in calories, so they can help you maintain a healthy weight. Eating a wide variety of plant foods provides vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals, which protect our cells from damage that may lead to cancer.
How many servings should you be consuming per day? More is better. Research consistently shows that the populations of people who have the lowest rates of disease consume between 4 and 5 cups of fruits and veggies per day.
2) Cut down on heavily processed foods.
Processed foods are foods manufactured or greatly altered from their original forms. Water, fiber and nutrients are lost, and extra fat, salt and sugar are often added. Some of these foods can provide a lot of calories without making you feel full. Examples include cookies, refined sugary cereals, candy, chips, chicken nuggets and sausage.
3) Aim for less salt.
“Salt” is the common name for a chemical compound made up of sodium and chloride. Our bodies need sodium in small amounts. On average, Americans consume 3,300 mg of sodium daily, mainly from processed foods like prepared meals, cheese, potato chips and processed meats. We actually need much less than this. Our daily intake of salt should be less than 2,400 mg (1 tsp). Consuming too much salt can increase our risk of stomach cancer as well as high blood pressure. Studies have shown that high salt intake can damage the lining of the stomach.
4) Drink less sugary drinks.
Regularly consuming sugary drinks contributes to weight gain because they are easy to drink in large quantities but don’t make us feel full, even though they are quite high in calories. Sugary drinks include soft drinks like colas and juice-flavored drinks.
- Water flavored with lemon
- Unsweetened tea and coffee
5) Avoid trans fats.
We know trans fats have harmful effects on the heart, such as raising blood cholesterol levels. How trans fats effect cancer risk or survival is not clear. Survivors should eat as few trans fats as possible for good health. Major sources of trans fats are margarines, baked goods and snack foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils.
6) Eat less red meat and avoid processed meat.
Beef, pork and lamb can be a part of a healthy diet, but you don’t need to eat it every day. You should aim to eat no more than 18 ounces cooked (24 ounces raw) in a week. If you eat more than this, your risk of colorectal cancer increases. Eighteen ounces would be about 5 or 6 meals weekly.
Processed meat is preserved by smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives and can be a cause of colorectal cancer. It should be avoided completely. There is no evidence of red meat or processed meat causing cancer recurrence, progression or survival, but survivors are recommended to avoid them for general good health.
Fish, poultry and eggs are not linked to an increased risk of cancer. We do not have evidence on which to base a recommendation for wild game red meats (such as rabbit and venison) and cancer risk. These meats tend to be leaner.
7) Avoid blackened meats.
High temperature cooking alters the make-up of foods, especially meat. There is some evidence that eating burned or charred foods increases the risk of cancer. It is okay to use the grill for cooking, but you must let flames die down first. This recommendation may be applied to survivors for general good health, although currently there is no evidence available regarding the effect of processed meat, meat cooked at high temperatures or meat in general on cancer recurrence or progression.
To learn more about the recommendations found in the report, visit the Diet and Cancer Report website.