You are what you eat—and don’t eat! Food has been shown to effect health, including the risk of cancer. Eating well is an easy way to strengthen your body’s defences against cancer. Also, maintaining a healthy-weight is important in protecting yourself from hormone-sensitive cancers.
Foods in their most natural state tend to be healthiest. The natural compounds in some foods may help to discourage cancer growth. Plant-foods rich in antioxidants may help to reduce the damaging effects of the over-production of free-radicals (potentially caused by smoking, alcohol, stress, and/or environmental pollution) leading to oxidative stress which may drive cancer initiation and production.
A predominantly plant-based diet that includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, whole grains, herbs and spices, with only a small amount of animal produce may therefore help to prevent cancer.
To get the right balance of foods in the diet, a healthy plate of food should contain: half a plate of non-starchy vegetables i.e. greens, a quarter of slow releasing starchy carbs (i.e. whole grains, root vegetables and squashes), and a quarter of lean or plant based protein (i.e. fish, poultry, or nuts, seeds and pulses), flavoured with herbs and spices.
The less processed the more nutritious foods are. For example eating a whole piece of fruit such as an apple including the skin is preferential to drinking a glass of apple juice. Evidence consistently suggests that eating plenty of fibre can reduce the risk of bowel cancer. Fibre-rich foods include: whole grains, pulses, fruit and vegetables.
If you can, buy organic or local produce if possible, particularly animal products. Organic foods have lower levels of potentially harmful residues, and may contain higher levels of beneficial nutrients.
Locally grown produce is less likely to have been treated with chemicals to prevent spoilage. Price may be inhibitive, or sometimes organic food is less widely available, in which case, try to eat a variety of foods combining organic and non-organic produce.
Try to follow the healthy approach (outlined above) 90% of the time, with only the occasional food treats.
So how much of each type of food should I eat?
I would recommend gradually increasing your intake to 9 or 10 portions of vegetables and fruit per day, with 7 portions being veg and 2 fruit. A portion can be measured simply by the amount that fits into a cupped hand. Go for a ‘rainbow of colours’ to get a variety of phytonutrients.
Suggestions for increasing the amount of vegetables and fruit in the diet include:
Add fruit and a few seeds or nuts to your whole grain porridge.
Eat a bowl of vegetable soup or a mixed salad containing beans or pulses.
Serve a side salad or steamed/roasted vegetables with dinner. Incorporate pureed vegetables into pasta sauces i.e. tomatoes, carrots, celery, and peppers.
Fresh or baked fruit makes a tasty dessert.
Vegetable crudités such as carrot, cucumber or pepper strips with humus make a great snack. Or a small handful of raw unsalted nuts with a piece of fruit.
Protein should also be included in each meal. It is essential to allow your body to repair itself. It helps you to maintain your immune system. Include animal protein 5 or 6 times a week – a palm-sized portion of fish or lean meat (poultry or game), or eggs.
Aim to keep red meat consumption to a minimum (1 or 2 portions per week). If you can, choose organic or grass-fed meat. Include plant-based protein such as pulses (beans, lentils or peas), nuts, seeds or grains like quinoa. Pulses can be sprouted to enhance their nutritional benefits.
Include unrefined whole grains such as buckwheat, rye, spelt, quinoa, wheat, rice and oats, and healthy fats such as oils from olives, coconuts, nuts and seeds, and oily fish (for omega-3 fats). Include a small amount of saturated fat from meat and dairy products but include more of the foods containing unsaturated fats.
Try to use a variety of fresh or dried herbs and spices, including: chilli, ginger, garlic, rosemary, turmeric, thyme and mint to add flavour and nutrients to food.
So what foods should I reduce or avoid in my diet?
Minimise baked goods (white bread, cakes, biscuits) containing refined grains (such as white flour) and sugar. Avoid hydrogenated fats used in deep-fried foods, cakes, pastries and crisps.
Try to limit your intake of alcohol and salt. Processed meats i.e. burgers, sausages, bacon, salami, smoked and cured meats should only be eaten occasionally, as evidence shows that there is probably a link between eating red and processed meat, and the risk of bowel cancer. People who eat a lot of these meats have a higher risk of getting bowel cancer than people who eat small amounts.
Examples of nutrient rich foods containing compounds with possible benefits in inhibiting/restricting cancer cell growth include:
Allium containing vegetables – garlic, leeks, onions and spring onions
Cruciferous and green vegetables – broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach and watercress
Orange/yellow vegetables – apricots, carrots, mangoes, pumpkins, squashes, sweet potatoes and peppers
Red vegetables and fruit – aubergine, beetroot, tomatoes, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, figs, grapes and pomegranate
Beans and pulses
Oily fish – mackerel, pilchards, salmon, sardines and trout
The first step towards increasing your chances of staying well is to eat more whole foods, especially vegetables and fruit, and fewer processed foods. When planning your meals, try to eat a variety of wholefoods in combination, and avoid eating one particular compound or food due to its health benefits. Aim for a range of colour, a good balance of the different food groups, and variety each meal and each day. Enjoy!