Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center

The Anti-Cancer Diet: How to Lower Your Risk

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Food and Cancer: 5 Truths to Help Lower Risk

A lot of us are looking for a perfect grocery list – that magical combination of foods that will prevent cancer. Is it lots of kale or broccoli? More blueberries and tomatoes?

Unfortunately, the science isn’t that clear-cut, says Alicia Gilmore, a dietitian and clinical instructor for the Department of Clinical Nutrition in the School of Health Professions at UT Southwestern. 

And while there are plenty of myths to go around, the truth is a bit more complex. Gilmore offers these five truths about how food and cancer prevention connect.

1. Don’t Rely Only on Superfoods; Opt for Variety

There’s really no one food to concentrate on, Gilmore says. Certain foods might get a lot of attention from time to time – kale, probiotics, and microgreens have all had their moment. But it’s important to remember that all whole foods have some nutritional benefit. “Don’t limit yourself,” she adds. “If you eat only blueberries, you’ll miss out on the benefits of broccoli and other cruciferous veggies.” 

2. Be Pro-Plant

There is evidence that a more plant-based diet could help reduce cancer risk, Gilmore says. Choose more fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, and whole grains. Phytochemicals occur naturally in plants and may influence chemical processes inside our bodies. One kind of phytochemical, called carotenoids, can be found in broccoli, carrots, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, oranges, and more. Another group, known as flavonoids, are present in apples, onions, soybeans, among other foods. There are a lot more, too, so variety is key. “One way to mix up your produce is to eat what’s in season,” Gilmore suggests. You’ll get variety as well as the freshest, best-tasting fruits and vegetables.

3. Watch Your Intake of Red Meat, Sugar, and Alcohol

Limiting red meat – that’s anything with four legs (beef, pork, lamb) – as well as processed forms like hot dogs, salami, and deli meats, can help reduce risk for colon cancer. In addition, being moderate with alcohol intake (no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women) can help reduce your risk of certain cancers, too. And while sugar can be a complex topic, Gilmore says, research shows it’s wise to reduce your intake of added sugars. Besides, foods with a lot of added sugar tend to be foods that aren’t very nutritious anyway. (You don’t need to stress about the sugar that’s inherently in foods like fruit, beans, or dairy.)

4. Remember Quantity Matters, Too

Beyond the foods you choose to eat, the amount you consume also matters. “If you want to do one thing to reduce your risk of cancer, getting to a healthy weight is it,” Gilmore says. Watching the quantity of food you eat, staying away from junk food, and being physically active are important steps in that direction.

5. Be Wary of Supplements

There are a lot of people promoting supplements that promise to prevent or cure cancer. While some of these products might have some potential benefits, many can be dangerous, Gilmore says. Talk to your doctor about the potential side effects and risks of any supplements you’re considering.

Wondering What to Eat After a Diagnosis?

Cancer itself, as well as its treatments, can affect the appetite. A cancer dietitian can help provide guidance on what to eat during treatment. Learn more here.