Fighting Cancer with Food and Nutrition
Donna's Dish of the Month
UW Health Senior Nutritionist Donna Weihofen, pictured left, explains how a healthy diet is key to preventing and fighting cancer.
Nutritionists are often asked if a diet, a food or a supplement will help cure cancer or prevent it from recurring.
To answer, we need to understand what we know about fighting cancer with food and nutrition.
- The food you eat can increase your body's ability to fight cancer and survive
- The food you eat can decrease your risk of developing some cancers
- It makes sense that what you eat to prevent cancer may help in decreasing risk of cancer recurrences
However, there is no evidence that any special diets or that any single food will cure cancer or prevent it from recurring. In fact, diets that exclude or limit some food groups may be harmful.
Nutrition research on preventing and treating cancer is continually changing as scientists develop studies and report findings. Information on the health benefits or health dangers of a specific food is often interesting and exciting to hear, but is frequently based on preliminary data.
To prevent becoming a victim of the "food of the week" syndrome, it is important to wait for collaborating studies and scientific consensus.
Everyday dietary patterns and general eating habits are key in preventing and treating cancer.
- Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
Although there are many controversies in the area of food and nutrition, there is total agreement that fruits and vegetables are the number one cancer fighters.
Choose the most colorful for the highest amounts of cancer fighting phytonutrients, including antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Among the highest in antioxidant power are:
- Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, oranges, cranberries, grapes, cherries, apples and melons
- Broccoli, spinach, asparagus, peppers, peas, beets, tomatoes, carrots, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, cabbage, onions and garlic
- Increase fiber and select whole grains.
Hundreds of studies have shown strong associations between high fiber diets and reduced cancer risk. Check the label of food for fiber content. A good goal is 25 – 30 grams of fiber per day.
Fruits and vegetables provide some fiber, other high fiber foods include:
- Breads and cereals made with whole grains, nuts and seeds
- Beans and legumes (red, white, black and kidney beans)
- Drink lots of fluids.
Any liquid counts as part of your fluid intake—water, juices, tea, even coffee.
Studies show that tea has special characteristics that decrease the risks of some cancers and possibly slow some cancer cell growth. Green, white and red teas are best, either caffeinated or decaffeinated.
- Choose good protein foods at every meal.
Eat more fish. Poultry, eggs, low fat dairy products, nuts, beans, soybeans and legumes are also good proteins.
Limit high fat animal products and other saturated and trans fats. Recent studies found decreased risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer recurrences when a low fat diet was followed.
- Find ways to increase essential omega-3 fats in your diet. These fatty acids are abundant in oily fish, especially salmon. Other choices are olive oil, canola oil, walnuts, flax seed, flax oil and fish oil supplements.
- Multivitamins and mineral supplements with close to 100 percent DV of most nutrients are usually recommended, but large amounts of single vitamins are not.
Calcium and Vitamin D supplements are important for those who do not eat dairy products regularly. Check with your physician or nutritionist on any herbal supplements.
- Exercise regularly.
Regular exercise decreases cancer risks and may decrease risk of some cancers recurring. Choose an exercise program that works for you. Remember that any exercise is better than no exercise.
- A healthy weight is the goal.
Studies show excess weight increases risk of many cancers. The good news is that there is every reason to assume that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight will decrease the risk of cancer.
- And the best news—dark chocolate is a good source of antioxidants.
Choose a chocolate treat that does not run around with bad friends (lots of sugar and fat). Enjoy eating and fight cancer too!
Donna L. Weihofen, RD, MS is a senior nutritionist and lecturer with UW Hospital and Clinics and the UW Carbone Cancer Center. Her primary area of expertise is nutritional care of patients with cancer and heart disease. The author of several books, she is a regular guest on WISC-TV 3, in Madison.