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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
October 19, 2022
Modern medicine has done some pretty amazing things to improve our longevity and quality of life. Populations are remaining healthier and living longer than ever before. Some diseases that were once death sentences can now be eradicated with a shot or pill. Pharmacology has risen to unprecedented heights, bringing with it amazing treatments.
But medicine's popularity has also overshadowed the power of natural food and all of the benefits healthy eating brings. To be clear, this article is not about choosing one or the other. Rather, we're going to discuss how your diet and certain foods can impact your risk of chronic diseases and developing cancer.
We're focusing on breast cancer but will touch on several types of cancers as most of these good-for-you foods help decrease your risk for a myriad of diseases.
This post will cover:
Let's find out what "food is medicine" means and how it can help us fight cancer!
In order to prevent breast cancer, we need to know what causes it. While there is a bunch of nuance concerning causes and types of cancer, we do have a basic understanding of cancer development.
Regardless of the type, at its origins, cancer is caused by a mutation in genes that control cell replacement. Our bodies are extremely efficient. To ensure the body stays disease free, it regularly goes through a cycle of cell death and birth. Periodically, old cells die and are replaced by healthy cells.
This entire process is controlled by various genes that manage the rate of cell development and the transcription of correct DNA. But when mutations occur, it means cell errors exist, causing the rapid growth of sick cells.
In addition, there are other factors that increase the growth of cancer cells. For example, when examining breast cancer, heightened estrogen levels have been found to increase the risk and the rate of cancer cell growth. This is specific to hormone-receptor tumor growth.
Now that we know the specific epidemiology of cancer, we need to discuss why these mutations occur. One of the hardest parts of fighting cancer is that there are so many different risk factors that you need to be aware of.
These can include everything from genetics to environmental factors to lifestyle choices.
Of these three areas of your life, you have no control over your genetics and minimal control over the environment. However, your lifestyle choices are up to you.
Genetics are what determine your characteristics, physical traits, including your body type, and to some extent, your disease risk. In fact, they can cause an increased risk of cancer, such as the prevalence of mutated genes. In addition, age and race can also play a role, with post-menopausal women, for example, being more susceptible to certain cancer types, like breast cancer.
While research still needs to be done, the latest consensus is that these risk factors actually play a small role compared to lifestyle and environmental causes. Estimates vary but the percentage seems to be somewhere between 10-15%¹.
Studies suggest that up to 90% of mutated genes that cause cancer occur throughout someone's life as a result of their lifestyle. For breast cancer specifically, 85% of mutated genes can be attributed to modifiable risks. This means that we do have a significant amount of control over our cancer risk¹.
Some modifiable risk factors include:
In addition, thing's like pollution and exposure to radiation can also increase your risk.
The word carcinogen is often heard when speaking about cancer. Carcinogens are cancer-causing substances, and when the body comes into contact with high amounts, your risk of developing cancer rises significantly.
While it's impossible to completely dodge carcinogens your entire life, there are certainly some that you can, for the most part, avoid.
Avoidable carcinogens include:
When it comes to your diet, your cancer risk can be increased through several mechanisms. While we will look at actual cancer-fighting foods below, we want to first look at foods that increase the risk of cancer and discuss how a poor diet and unhealthy weight can increase your cancer risk.
Studies suggest that obesity alone accounts for up to 40% of breast cancer cases and plays a major role in 13 types of cancers, accounting for 35% of their diagnosis².
Some of these cancers include colorectal cancer (colon cancer), kidney cancer, and uterus cancer.
Research shows that behind smoking, obesity is the 2nd most modifiable cause of cancer². This is why your diet is so important in fighting cancer as it can help you maintain a healthy weight.
It's important to be aware of the various foods that increase your chance of developing cancer. These are foods that research has shown to potentially increase your risk of cancer.
As you're going through these foods, keep in mind that eating them once in a while is likely not going to cause cancer. Even eating them regularly will not guarantee cancer.
Instead, keep in mind that the studies we're citing below have shown that eating the following foods regularly can increase your cancer risk. So don't think you can't enjoy these once in a while, especially if the rest of your diet and lifestyle choices are in check.
Don't freak out just yet, meat lovers. Let us explain.
Studies have identified two carcinogens associated with grilled meat: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs)³. PAHs are formed inside the smoke from when the fat of meat drips onto the heat source. The smoke then rises and lands on the meat. HCAs occur when the protein is heated and mutates.
While these are carcinogens, it's unclear how much a human needs to eat in order for them to be dangerous. And as protein is a great way to support weight loss, feel full, and help with muscle hypertrophy, we certainly don't want to discourage all meat eating. But to lower your cancer risk, try to cook your meat at a lower heat and don't overcook your food.
We all know sweets aren't good for us, but they're just so good when we eat them. Unfortunately, the delicious flavor comes with a price. It increases your cancer risk.
Cancer research suggests that when excessive sugar is added to one's diet, the risk of cancer increases with a seemingly dose-dependent effect. However, this doesn't just mean eating cookies. Those who drank a significant amount of fruit juice saw upwards of a 6% increase⁴.
The exact mechanisms aren't fully understood but are likely due to elevated blood sugar levels and the development of diabetes. Some of the most profound connections occurred with the risk of developing the following cancers:
There are many other factors that play a role, such as your activity level, time of consumption, and overall sugar intake. Regardless, your main source of hydration should be water. If you need to have a sugary drink, limit it to one a day.
And if you're craving something sweet, find healthy ways to give in to your sweet tooth. For example, high protein French toast will be sweet and taste delicious, and you can easily avoid adding too much sugar with some healthy swaps.
While it seems as though dairy, in general, does not increase your cancer risk, we still wanted to address it as many people ask about it, and there is some nuance.
As a whole, cancer research suggests that the consumption of dairy does not increase the likelihood of cancer. In fact, fermented dairy, such as yogurt, seems to reduce cancer risk.
But one meta-analysis concluded that high consumption of milk, specifically high-fat milk, increases cancer risk⁵. The takeaway here? When examining all of the studies, it seems that whole milk might be the only dairy product that is of concern, and even that is inconclusive.
And as some dairy, like nonfat Greek yogurt, are great low-fat high protein food sources, we don't suggest removing all of it from your diet.
Perhaps just cut out the whole milk.
Red meat is another common food linked to cancer. The main distinguishing factor here is whether you're eating processed meats or unprocessed meats. Processed meats include things like hot dogs, salami, and sausage. These meats generally have greater amounts of salt and fat compared to unprocessed meats. Unprocessed red meats include steak, lamb, and even hamburgers.
These two classes of meat are often conflated, which causes so much confusion as the link is much stronger between processed sources and cancer. When it comes to red meat, there is a link, but it's significantly smaller and only exists with excessive consumption⁶.
On this note, don't make hot dogs and sausage a regular part of your diet. However, the American Institute For Cancer Research suggests you can safely eat 18 ounces of red meat a week⁷.
Now let's talk about anti-cancer foods. These are cancer-fighting foods that improve your immune system and create an environment that will ward off carcinogens.
It's important to understand that the formation of cancer can occur from a variety of different pathways. This is especially true, depending on the type of cancer you are talking about.
For example, free radicals are ions with an uncharged electron. Research is still studying their role in human health, but it's clear that a high level of these, generally caused by environmental factors, can damage cells and DNA. As a result, cancer develops.
To fight this cause of cancer, you need to eat plenty of antioxidants. These are known as "free radical scavengers" and basically neutralize free radicals. Also, you may need dietary fiber, in addition to antioxidants, to help fight some cancers, like colorectal cancer.
You will notice that the majority of anti-cancer foods are plant-based foods. In other words, your mom was right when she told you to eat your fruits and veggies!
As you saw above, cancer has a number of different mechanisms in its epidemiology. This means that all of these foods can fight cancer in different ways.
Therefore, don't think that you just need to add one of the following foods to your diet. Rather, include as much as you can to fight cancer from all sides with a healthy diet. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, the more the better.
Leafy green and cruciferous vegetables are plant foods that are extremely powerful cancer-fighting foods. This includes vegetables such as:
Cruciferous vegetables are known to have a wide variety of potent anticancer properties. In fact, these leafy green vegetables are some of the best cancer-fighting foods around.
These plant foods contain a powerful sulforaphane compound that offers many health benefits. Some of these include an improvement to your digestive system and heart health and the ability to correct diabetic symptoms.
Given this article's topic, we're going to focus on its ability to prevent cancer. A study found that broccoli can be effective at preventing cancer by preventing the growth of breast cancer cells⁸. In addition, it acts as a powerful antioxidant and can help form an anti-cancer environment. But in order to see its benefits, you must chop the vegetables to activate the compound.
Further, we suggest spicing up your veggies with some mustard seeds, as they, too, have been found to increase the availability of sulforaphane⁹.
The benefits of these vegetables don't end there, either. They're also packed with a ton of additional anti-cancer compounds, including:
Having a hard time working enough greens in? Try blending some with a vanilla-flavored protein powder, some berries, and Greek yogurt for a tasty cancer-fighting shake.
Not all fat is created equal. Some you should avoid as much as possible, but interestingly, when it comes to fighting cancer, the fat found in fish is quite beneficial (If interested, you can read more about fatty fish benefits in our article on fish oil vs. krill oil or check out our posts that cover the Best Krill Oil and Best Omega-3 Supplements on the market).
Everyone needs to eat more fatty fish as they have high levels of healthy fatty acids (omega-3) and are known to exhibit health benefits even beyond fighting cancer¹⁰. That said, research suggests fatty fish does a great job of fighting cancer too.
For example, a study linked omega-3 fatty acids to a reduction in cancer from a variety of pathways, including reducing cell proliferation and cell survival, providing anti-inflammatory properties, and reducing metastasis (the spread of cancer to secondary sites)¹⁰.
That's pretty impressive. And on top of that, fatty fish also contains high amounts of vitamin D, which has also been associated with a reduced risk of cancer¹¹.
Aim to eat two servings per week. Some fish that fit the bill are salmon, herring, and striped bass.
Whole grains, which have long been affiliated with cancer-fighting properties, are grains that contain all their elements, including endosperm, bran, and germ.
Sorry, white bread lovers: Refined bread is only going to have the endosperm. This means it's important to replace your refined grains with whole grains, as whole grains are effective at pushing back cancer cells. The mechanisms aren't entirely clear, but there are a few likely pathways.
Studies show that regular intake of whole grains produces a 6% to 12% lower risk of cancer development. If you're able to eat 90 grams per day, you could see a maximum reduction of 20%¹².
If you're trying to add some flavor to your vegetables, throw some turmeric or garlic on them. These two flavorful compounds have one thing in common (other than tasting great): They have been shown to be strong cancer-fighting foods.
Turmeric is common in Asian dishes and delivers a mustard-like flavor. Studies suggest it carries numerous health benefits, including acting as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant and reducing cancer risk thanks to the yellow chemical curcumin found in turmeric. In addition, you can even take turmeric for weight loss.
Currently, most of the studies have been geared toward turmerics' ability to slow cancer growth. For example, research from 2010 demonstrated that turmeric significantly slowed the spread of breast cancer cells¹³. In addition, research shows that turmeric can alleviate the symptoms and pain of chemotherapy and radiation treatment¹⁴.
Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which is activated when garlic is chopped and is responsible for its fragrance. Allicin has been shown to reduce the formation of prostate cancer in men.
Further, both garlic and turmeric have been shown to provide potential health benefits against breast cancer¹⁵.
Berries are awesome antioxidants thanks to plant pigments called anthocyanins. These pigments are present in various different bright-colored fruits and hold powerful antioxidant properties. In addition, berries hold numerous other compounds, such as flavonoids and phytochemicals¹⁶.
Berries are very powerful cancer-fighting foods to add to your diet. This effect is especially seen in breast cancer and stomach cancer. To optimize the effects of these bright fruits, try to add two servings per day.
In general, fruit even makes the list of top muscle-building foods as they provide great energy for your workouts (so you can work harder and potentially build more muscle). There's no shortage of reasons to start eating berries immediately.
As we can't go through every cancer-fighting food in detail (the good news is there are lots!), we want to quickly list some other anticancer foods to give you more options to add to your diet. These include other plant-based foods in addition to spices.
Other great anticancer foods include:
We know that even if you mean well, it can sometimes be difficult to introduce all of these foods into your diet. That's why we suggest creating a breakfast smoothie that's full of these compounds.
Create a protein smoothie using your favorite protein powder and choice of milk (remember, skip the full-fat version). Next, add a good helping of berries, spinach, arugula, and kale to your smoothie, and blend. Finally, add a side of Greek yogurt and some toast made of whole grains. If you're looking for post-workout meal ideas following a morning workout, it doesn't get much better than this.
Trying to take all of the suggestions and tips on cancer prevention and then apply them can be a bit overwhelming. However, when broken down into their most basic application, it's a lot easier to understand and apply.
Lifestyle Cancer-Reducing Guidelines:
Here are your basic lifestyle guidelines for reducing your cancer risk.
Dietary Cancer-Reducing Recommendations:
Now, when it comes to dietary guidelines to lower cancer risk, here's what to focus on:
While 100% cancer prevention will likely never be a reality, you can greatly reduce your cancer risk by making some dietary changes. By adding some of the foods we highlighted, you're going to instantly build your defense against cancer. And as these foods are chock-full of nutrients, you'll also just feel really good too.
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