Fighting cancer with food

Diets rich in fruits, vegetables turn odds in cancer fighters’ favor
Dec. 1, 2023

Knowing you need to eat healthily while fighting cancer is one thing, but knowing how to do it is another.

Here are tips from UCHealth oncology nutritionists about the best foods to eat — as well as those best to avoid — to fight or prevent cancer.
Certain foods can help in the fight against cancer or help prevent it. Photo by Kati Blocker, UCHealth.

A plant-rich menu high in vitamins and minerals is best for anyone, but especially those battling or trying to prevent a recurrence of cancer. Here are tips from UCHealth oncology nutritionists about the best foods to eat — as well as those best to avoid — to fight or prevent cancer.

A non-starchy focus

Non-starchy vegetables and fruits protect against cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, stomach and lung.

Eat five to 10 servings of non-starchy vegetables and fruits daily, and select a large variety from the “rainbow” of choices for optimum benefit, as the non-nutrient substances (known as phytochemicals) from plant foods seem to work independently as well as synergistically to decrease risk. Phytochemicals are found in numerous plant foods, including tomatoes, citrus fruits, berries, peppers, carrots, broccoli, cabbage and soy beans. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussel sprouts and cabbage, are especially high in vitamins and minerals. Potatoes, corn, peas and bananas are considered starchy.

Add a little flavor

Allium vegetables, such as garlic, onions, leeks, shallots and chives, are rich in sulfur compounds and defend against stomach as well as prostate cancer, according to some studies.

Garlic and foods that contain dietary fiber/whole grains, such as whole-grain cereals and breads, prunes, berries, kidney beans and other legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, and brown rice, protect against colorectal cancer.

Certain nutrients like lycopene – at its highest in foods with cooked tomatoes – as well as whole-food soy sources, such as miso, tempeh, tofu, soybeans, soy nuts and soy milk, are known for fighting prostate cancer.

Pump up the fiber

Adults should consume between 25 and 38 grams of fiber a day. A diet high in fiber is especially important to fend off breast, colorectal and prostate cancers. So, stock up on those beans, lentils and legumes.

The Mediterranean diet, characterized by a high consumption of vegetables and olive oil and moderate amounts of protein, also may guard against breast cancer.

Take it easy

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how healthily someone eats; he or she may still get cancer, but the foods that aren’t generally healthy are the same ones that can hurt in the battle against cancer.

For instance, a diet high in red meat — including your breakfast meats — as well as processed meats increases the risk of colorectal cancer.

While it’s impossible to avoid all sugar — and it’s not healthy, either — it’s best to stick to sugar that occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy products and whole grains, with just an occasional sweet treat.

Not eating prepackaged foods also helps you avoid sugar and a host of unnatural and unhealthy ingredients, so prepare meals using whole foods at home as much as possible. Vitamins and minerals gained from whole foods always benefit a body better than supplements.

Alcohol is linked with head, neck, gastrointestinal and breast cancers, so women should drink no more than 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor a day, and men no more than twice that.

Minimize saturated fats from high-fat dairy products, such as whole milk and ice cream, as well as from baked goods, and solid fats such as butter. The healthy fats — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated — are found in nuts; seeds; fatty fish, such as salmon; avocados, and other types of oils.

Consider your circumstances

In considering these recommendations, it’s important to note that many have difficulty eating at all or eating certain foods while battling cancer and need to throw all dietary restraints to the wind for a while, worrying only about getting enough calories and protein to maintain weight.