It is not uncommon for survivors to ask me what they should eat to keep cancer from growing or coming back. There is no single food or food substance that can prevent or cure cancer. There are many beneficial foods. However the most effective nutrition ‘cancer control’ strategy involves the concept of synergy. Synergy means that the combination of nutrients that the body gets from eating several different types of foods is more effective than eating a lot of one type of food. For example, you would get more benefit from eating a meal containing kale, sweet potato, brown rice, black beans and strawberries than you would from drinking a large glass of pomegranate juice or taking a supplement pill.
Things that you want to consider for choosing the right combination of foods is variety in food groups and moderation in foods that are calorie dense. Calorie control is helpful for maintaining a healthy weight, which is an important aspect of healthy survivorship. If you need to lose weight, benefits can be seen with even a 5-10% decrease in weight. Any change towards a healthy weight is beneficial, even if you don’t achieve what you feel is an ‘ideal weight’.
I think the most important part of healthy eating is the idea of a nutrient dense diet. This means that the foods that you eat are high in the health promoting nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytochemicals. I like to call these foods "protectors". Nutrient dense foods include fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, minimally processed whole grains, nuts and legumes (dried beans). By getting a variety from each of these groups you will get a good array of nutrients to help fight cancer. If you’re not familiar with phytochemicals, they are plant compounds (phyto means plant) that are thought to promote healthy tissue in the body and support the immune system. There are more than 900 phytochemicals discovered so far and more will continue to be discovered. Some of the more common phytochemicals are beta-carotene, lycopene, isoflavones and leutein. Colorful fruits and vegetables have a lot of potent phytochemicals and that is why we are often encouraging people to eat lots of different colorful plant foods.
In my next blog, I will address what I call "promoter" foods. For now, I want to give you 3 practical tips on how to include more "protectors" in your diet.
- Every meal should have a fruit, vegetable or both. Most people don’t like veggies at breakfast, so be SURE to get fruit, preferably 1 cup of fresh fruit, at breakfast time. If you don’t have fresh fruit around, a good back up plan would be canned (in ‘lite’ juice) fruit, or 100% fruit juice. Lunch and dinner should have at least 1 cup of vegetables. If you don’t have vegetables at lunch, you probably won’t meet your daily intake of fruits and vegetables.
- Make sure that 1/2 of your plate is covered in fruits and/or vegetables, 1/4 of your plate with whole grains and 1/4 with protein (bonus points if your protein comes from a plant, like legumes, tofu, nuts or seeds).
- Have fruit for dessert.
For a lot of people, simply keeping track of the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat each day can be an eye opening activity and provides them with insight on where they need to be fitting in more fruits and vegetables. Ideally, a healthy diet would have between 4-5 cups of fruits + vegetables daily.
Eat your phytochemicals!