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The Role of Food in Cancer Prevention and Recovery


The food you decide to put into your body has an enormous impact on your health. According to the American Cancer Society, research indicates that about one third of U.S. cancer deaths are related to diet. And among people who don’t smoke, physical activity and dietary habits are the two biggest cancer risk factors that you can control. If you’re looking to pack your diet with foods that might help you prevent cancer, key components are fruits and vegetables.

The National Cancer Institute, The World Health Organization and the American Institute for Cancer Research, among other organizations, recommend 5 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. Why? Because fruits and vegetables are rich in “micronutrients” that boost the immune system. They contain antioxidants (vitamins and other essential elements), which are believed to fight the effects of cancer-causing oxidation that occurs at the cellular level.

Many people looking to prevent cancer or avoid a recurrence take things one step further and do their best to avoid eating foods that have been in contact with pesticides, antibiotics, food dyes, etc. Some of the alternative health experts believe this is the way to go. If this is important to you:

  • Buy organic vegetables whenever you can
  • Buy free range chicken
  • Look for hormone-free beef and dairy products

Foods rich in cancer-protective antioxidant chemicals include

  • Cabbage-family vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, kale, brussels sprouts)
  • Dried beans and peas
  • Tomatoes (Especially cooked tomatoes, which contain lycopene, a strong antioxidant. Be sure to eat a little bit of oil with your cooked tomatoes, because this helps your body absorb the lycopene. There’s oil in most tomato sauces, for example.)
  • Grapes
  • Almonds and Brazil nuts
  • Deep yellow-orange vegetables and fruits
  • Citrus fruits
  • Blueberries
  • Dried fruits (prunes, raisins, etc.)
  • Garlic
  • Green tea

Foods to avoid
Some studies have shown that populations that eat a high fat diet have higher incidences of breast and prostate cancer. Other studies show that people who eat a so-called “Western diet,” common to many in the U.S., have higher rates of colon cancer. In general, if you want to keep your risk of cancer as low as possible, the kinds of foods you should limit or avoid include:

  • Hydrogenated and saturated fats (found in most snack foods, like chips and crackers, and fast foods)
  • Refined sugars (white bread, sugary desserts, white pasta)
  • Red meat (try to limit to three to four times per week)
  • Fried food

The take-home message for you
It sounds complicated to talk about antioxidants, micronutrients and hydrogenated fats. But the basic message is simple:

  • Eat plenty of foods that are high in vitamins and minerals.
  • Avoid eating a lot of foods that have been highly processed, like snack foods and cured meats, because food as close to its natural state as possible has the most nutrients and the least cancer-causing agents.
  • Stay away from fast food whenever possible.
  • Try to make sure your foods have a variety of colors, because that gives you the range of vitamins and minerals you need.

The American Cancer Society; American Institute for Cancer Research; The Moss Reports; The National Cancer Institute; A.Weil. Eating Well for Optimum Health. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 2001
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