What to eat, do (and not do) to prevent cancer
Small changes can make a big difference in your risk.
When it comes to the question of whether you'll get cancer, it often seems that your fate is a mysterious combination of factors beyond your control. We all know someone who smoked, drank and ate bacon every day yet escaped a diagnosis. And far more disheartening, we also know people who lived a virtuously healthy life only to develop the disease. Add to that the confusion over what actually is the right way to avoid the Big C. In fact, three in four people believe there are so many recommendations about preventing breast, colon, lung and other cancers that it's hard to know which guidelines to follow.
The area that probably generates the most debate? Knowing what to eat. There is such an abundance of contradictory studies about food and cancer that it's nearly impossible to consider any one definitive, let alone keep them all straight. So how do you sort through myriad studies, complete with caveats and exceptions? Well, you don't, because we did it for you. SELF went to the experts and scrutinized the latest research to summarize the best cancer-fighting eating advice so far. We also looked at the news on other lifestyle factors such as stress and exercise to generate a guide that can help cancer-proof your body from head to toe. But first, a list that tells you what to forgo and what to fill up on. Let's eat!
Three foods to feast on frequently
Cruciferous veggies Broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale are all cancer-fighting stars in the produce department, and several studies have linked them to a lower risk for colorectal, lung and stomach cancers, says Lawrence Kushi, Sc.D., associate director for epidemiology at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, California. Plus, research from Michigan State University in East Lansing found that those who ate raw or lightly cooked cabbage and sauerkraut more than three times a week were 72 percent less likely to develop breast cancer than those who had 1.5 or fewer servings. Experts suspect vegetables such as cabbage contain chemicals that turn on your body's natural detoxifying enzymes, Kushi explains.
How much to eat You can't have too much, but five weekly half-cup servings is a reasonable goal.
High-fiber anything Fiber's ability to keep things moving appears to have a protective effect not only on the colon (no surprise) but also on the breasts. Researchers in Sweden followed more than 61,000 women and discovered that those who consumed more than 4.5 servings of whole grains daily had a 35 percent lower risk for colon cancer. Because fiber speeds the passage of stool through the colon, cells have less exposure to potentially carcinogenic waste. Roughage may also sop up excess estrogen and insulin, two hormones linked to breast cancer.
How much to eat Aim for 25 grams (from food) a day. A half cup of a high-fiber cereal, such as All-Bran or Fiber One, can provide about half your daily dose. Beans, whole-grain breads with added fiber, fruit and veggies can help get you there, too.
Foods rich in vitamin D and calcium Your breasts and colon may get protection from this vitamin/mineral combo. Scientists who reviewed 10 studies found that those who consume high amounts of dairy products have a lower risk for colorectal cancer, likely because of calcium's protective effect, according to a report in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. The two nutrients may also help ward off early breast cancer by suppressing the effects of hormones.
How much to consume Women under 50 need 1,000 milligrams of calcium and at least 400 international units of vitamin D a day. Fortified milk and orange juice are good sources of both.
Two foods to enjoy often
Tomatoes and berries There's a bit of evidence that tomatoes and tomato products may reduce the risk for gastric, ovarian, pancreatic and prostate cancers. The theory: Lycopene, which gives tomatoes their red color, may help prevent cell damage. The research, however, is far from proven. "It is one thing to show effects in tissue culture, and another thing to demonstrate conclusively that these effects translate into real health effects in people," Kushi says. Still, these foods are absolutely healthy, so SELF says, Eat them!
Berries, too, have their share of fans, but evidence of their anticancer benefits is still being gathered. Certainly, strawberries, raspberries and blueberries are rich in antioxidants, which protect against cell damage. But as with tomatoes, it's not clear if the findings hold up in the real world. Again, this is not a time to wait for the science to catch up—consuming a variety of fruit and veggies will always be good for you.
How much to eat Make berries and tomatoes a part of your nine fruit and veggie servings a day. Sneak in extra amounts by tossing some berries on your cereal or ordering a little extra sauce for your pasta.
Three foods to cut back on
Red and processed meat Still reluctant to trade your hot dog for a not dog? You may want to reconsider. Studies have found a strong connection between colon cancer and processed meat such as hot dogs and cold cuts, as well as beef, pork and lamb. The stats are pretty convincing: Women who ate approximately 1 ounce of processed meat (about one slice of bologna) two or three times a week for a decade were 50 percent more likely to develop colon cancer; eating only 2 ounces of red meat a day long-term can increase the odds of rectal cancer by as much as 40 percent, according to a large study in The Journal of the American Medical Association. Colon cancer isn't a carnivores-only concern. Women who downed 1.5 servings of meat a day had nearly twice the breast cancer risk of those who ate fewer than three servings per week, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine. One possible reason? Carcinogens are created when meat is cooked at high temperatures as well as when it's processed with substances such as nitrates.
How much to eat Think of meat as a side dish, Kushi says. Stick to less than 3 ounces of red meat a day, and avoid charring as much as possible.
Alcohol Disconcerting news for drinkers: Imbibing alcohol increases the risk of developing breast, colon, esophagus, mouth and throat cancers. "Alcohol is one of the few dietary factors showing a clear and consistent relationship with breast cancer," Kushi says. If you're wondering why total abstinence isn't encouraged, the reason is twofold: "We recognize that a little bit of alcohol reduces risk for cardiovascular disease," Kushi says. Plus, there's nothing wrong with enjoying life!
How much to down It's safest to limit yourself to a drink a night, max—and less if you have a significant risk for breast cancer. Because binge drinking may have other negative health consequences, no divvying up your seven drinks over two days instead of seven. (We asked.)
Fats Although experts agree that maintaining a diet low in saturated fat is smart all around, the research linking fat and cancer is controversial. Still, there is evidence suggesting that keeping fat intake low may offer some breast cancer protection. When researchers from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, followed nearly 189,000 postmenopausal women for four years, they discovered that the chance of developing breast cancer was 15 percent higher among women whose diets were 40 percent fat versus those that were 20 percent.
How much to eat No more than 30 percent of your calories should come from fat. That's about 60 grams of fat for women eating 1,800 calories a day. And because saturated fat plays a huge role in heart disease, try to get most of your fat from healthy sources such as avocados, fish, nuts and olive oils.
One food to watch carefully
Soy Soy is generally good for you, but its exact relationship with breast cancer is still being sussed out. Studies in the lab show that breast cancer cells proliferate when exposed to isolated soy compounds, most likely because soy contains plant-based estrogens, Kushi says. In the body, however, "these same phytoestrogens seem to be related to some reduction in risk." How much to eat About 20 grams or less daily. You'll be in the healthy range with a cup of tofu, three quarters of a cup of edamame, about half a cup of tempeh or a quarter cup of soy nuts.
Protection in a bottle?
"The best way to get your vitamins is with food," says Larry Norton, M.D., medical director of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "God put more good things in an apple than I know about," he says. But the one exception may be vitamin D. Women who took nearly three times the recommended amount of this nutrient, as well as about 1,500 milligrams of calcium, reduced their cancer risk by 77 percent, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. For now, get at least 400 international units a day. Fortified milk and orange juice are good sources, but ask whether a supplement can help you make up the difference.