The diet that could stop cancer from spreading

Every year—shortly after National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October—the American Cancer Society reports that roughly another 1.7 million new cancer cases have been diagnosed. That’s a staggering number, but here’s something all cancer patients can be hopeful about: Research suggests that not only can diet help prevent the disease, but there’s also evidence that what you eat can also help keep cancer from spreading or recurring. Here’s what cancer experts have learned about the best dietary approach for cancer survivors. Check out other good-news statistics about cancer.

Diet matters

In a 2002 study, researchers found that an estimated one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States can be attributed to diet. But conversely, “Good nutrition may reduce the incidence of breast cancer and the risk of breast cancer progression or recurrence,” wrote Natalie Ledesma, RD, in Women’s Health Matters, a publication from the University of California, San Francisco. Research published in Nutrition Reviews found that the foods you eat—and, importantly, the things you avoid—can dramatically reduce the risk of cancer returning. In this review of studies on diet and cancer recurrence, the researchers found that a generally healthy diet could lower future cancer risk by about 25 percent; following a high-sugar, high-fat Western-style diet nearly doubled the risk of return. Alcohol didn’t help either: The more people drank, the higher their risk of recurrence.

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Diet can keep cancer from spreading

Don’t focus on nutrients

Just remember that studying human nutrition is tricky, and experts caution that the science is still inconclusive about which specific nutrients or foods are involved when it comes to fighting cancer—if any. “It’s really more about looking at the whole diet rather than any specific nutrient,” says Mia Gaudet, PhD, scientific director of epidemiology research for the American Cancer Society. “Most nutrients aren’t available naturally in isolation. Eating a variety of foods will get you the widest range of nutrients possible.” Find out the 30 simple steps to take to cut your cancer risk.

Fruits and veggies are vital

You may know that carotenoids are the compounds that give carrots and other orange foods their color. They’re also potent antioxidants that have strong anticancer properties. You’ll find them in lots of fruits and veggies (sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, pumpkin), which may help explain why plant-based diets tend to be linked to lower rates of cancer. “In studies, people who ate the most vegetables had the lowest risk of estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer,” says Susan Brown, RN, senior director of education and patient support at Susan G. Komen. Just note that the research suggests that veggies have a stronger effect than fruits, so focus your efforts on orange and yellow vegetables for best results. Also, consider eating some other types of produce that help keep cancer at bay.

Whole grains can help

The popularity of low-carb, high-protein diets has made grains an endangered species in the American diet. The fear surrounding gluten hasn’t helped. Whole grains are an important source of cancer-fighting nutrients, including fiber.

“There’s a lot of evidence that fiber fights cancer,” says Robert Segal, MD, founder of Medical Offices of Manhattan. “In populations that have high-fiber diets, colon, stomach, and breast cancers are a lot less common.” And they’re less likely to reoccur when people get plenty from their diet, he says.

It may have something to do with the way fiber alters the effect of hormones like estrogen—which is linked to some types of cancer. Fiber can also bind with certain carcinogenic compounds and help move them out of the body. Most Americans get only a fraction of the 40 grams of fiber they need daily, averaging between 10 and 20 grams a day. Whole grains like oats, brown rice, and quinoa are a great way to reach that quota.

Beans do a body good 

Beans are another great source of dietary fiber—plus, they’re rich in antioxidants and protein, which makes them a healthy, low-fat alternative to meat. Research has found that people who eat a lot of meat have a higher risk of developing cancer; subbing in plant-based protein sources like beans may help slash your risk. One 2005 study found that women whose diets included eating beans and lentils at least twice a week had a 24 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who ate them less than once a month. Check out 15 things cancer doctors do to avoid getting cancer.

Olive oil is a healthy fat

Eating too much fat can boost the presence of hormones that elevate some cancer risks, such as breast, Dr. Segal warns. But recent research suggests that healthier types of fats, specifically the monounsaturated kind found in olive oil and other foods, may have a slight protective effect against a variety of cancers. It’s no secret that olives are a staple of Mediterranean cooking, which may be why those countries have cancer rates significantly lower than those in the United States.

Soy could slash your risk 

There has been some debate over soy’s role in cancer prevention and recurrence, mostly because it contains compounds known as phytoestrogens, which mimic human hormones that seem to raise risk. If any risk exists—and there’s plenty of argument against that idea—it’s from concentrated soy proteins (in supplements) or heavily processed soy fillers that turn up in junk food, according to the Mayo Clinic. There is some research suggesting that diets rich in whole soy foods may have a protective effect—particularly against breast cancer. Look for the least processed forms of soy—edamame, tofu, soy milk, miso. Now read these 37 science-backed ways to cut your cancer risk.

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Ledesma, an oncology dietitian at the Cancer Resource Center at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, identifies two major types of diets as optimal: a plant-based diet and the Mediterranean diet. Many experts agree that some of the same eating habits that help prevent cancer can also help halt its progression and stop it from recurring in patients.

RELATED: Foods directly related to cancer 

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10 foods directly tied to cancer
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10 foods directly tied to cancer

Barbecue

Grill aficionados, beware: “High intake of meat, particularly well-cooked meat, has been associated with increased risk of cancers,” says Mia Gaudet, PhD, scientific director of epidemiology research for the American Cancer Society (ACS). The problem seems to be that cooking meat on a grill leads to the production of carcinogenic compounds known as PAHs, she says.

Essentially, the mouthwatering char marks on a flame-broiled burger or steak are the sign of chemicals that may not be as good for you as they taste. In studies, rodents that were fed high amounts of these compounds developed cancerous tumors. Even burnt toast has some, but in much smaller amounts, says Gaudet. So if you regularly cook your meat at very high temperatures, you may want to consider alternate methods. Look into these 37 other ways you can reduce your risk of cancer.

Pickles

Fermented foods have grown popular lately, in part because they’re said to have digestive benefits thanks to their supply of healthy bacteria. But some preliminary research suggests that their high salt content may be linked to stomach cancer. “Studies have found higher rates of cancer among Asian populations that consume a lot of fermented kimchi and smoked fish,” says Robert Segal, MD, founder of Medical Offices of Manhattan. Consider swapping in some of these other gut-friendly foods instead.

Charcuterie

The process used to preserve meats like sausage, bacon, ham, and salami leads to the formation of nitrites, compounds that researchers have found can increase the risk of colon and other cancers, says Gaudet. For that reason, ACS guidelines recommend limiting processed meats in your diet. Eat less meat that has been preserved through smoking, salting, or curing. Check out other foods you should never eat if you don’t want to get cancer.

Booze

When it comes to alcohol, it’s more about quantity than quality. “There are strong links to increased risk of cancer with moderate to high alcohol intake,” says Gaudet. That’s why experts recommend no more than one serving of alcohol—the equivalent of a 12-ounce beer, 5-ounce serving of wine, or 1.5-ounce shot of liquor per day for women; men can double those servings on account of their higher body weight.

Trans Fat

Most people didn’t even know what these were until the FDA banned them in 2015. (You can still get trace amounts from the naturally occurring trans fats in meat and dairy products.) The ban could help prevent thousands of cardiac-related deaths a year. Manufacturers used the man-made version of these fats—they’re also called partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs)—to make foods more shelf stable and to replace saturated fats: They were even used to make margarine that was marketed as a “healthier” version of butter.

Researchers finally realized that trans fats raise the risk of a number of chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease. On their own, trans fats haven’t been conclusively linked to cancer risk, but one study found that breast cancer patients whose diets included trans fats have a 78 percent higher chance of dying within seven years of their diagnosis than those who avoided PHOs.

Red Meat

Sorry, Ron Swanson, but beef, pork, and even lamb may up your risk of cancer. Eating more than 18 ounces total of the stuff each week can increase your chances of developing colorectal cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research. This is why most official guidelines recommend getting the majority of the protein in your diet from plant-based sources such as beans and tofu. Check out 15 things cancer doctors do to avoid getting cancer.

Soda

While researchers are still investigating the link between sugar and cancer, getting too much of the sweet stuff (and soft drinks are a particularly egregious source) certainly leads to weight gain; one thing that’s abundantly clear is that being overweight raises your cancer risk. For example, the more body fat you have, the higher your levels of circulating estrogen—and that worsens your odds of developing breast and reproductive cancers, Dr. Segal warns.

Microwave Popcorn

Often, microwavable popcorn bags are lined with a nonstick coating that contains PFOA, a chemical that has been shown in animal studies to increase the risk of liver, testicular, and pancreatic cancers, among others. Popping your own may take longer but is worth the trouble. Some brands offer alternative liners, too. Read more about other surprising cancer culprits.

Canned Tomatoes and Sauces 

Manufacturers use bisphenol A (BPA) in certain kinds of plastics and—until recently—the linings of cans used for canned goods. The problem? BPA can interfere with the body’s natural production of sex hormones, upping the risk for breast and prostate cancer. Because of their high acidity, tomatoes tend to leach the chemical from the can lining, making them a much more concentrated source of BPA. While many manufacturers have begun phasing out the use of BPA, you may want to get your tomatoes and acidic citrus fruits fresh.

Hot beverages 

There’s been a lot of debate over this because coffee and tea have other health advantages. Recently, the World Health Organization removed coffee from its list of potential carcinogens. But there is still evidence suggesting that serving beverages at 149° F or higher could elevate the risk of esophageal cancer—which is deadly. Researchers believe that the high temperatures may damage tissue, leaving it vulnerable to the development of cancerous lesions. Lots of commercial beverages are served in the 140-160° F range, so err on the side of caution when it comes to letting your drinks cool. Try incorporating into your life 30 more simple ways to help protect against cancer.

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