Can Eating Right Really Prevent Cancer?

July 31, 2015
Experts chime in on the diet-disease link.

Cancer is scary—mostly because it happens so randomly and seems so totally out of your control. And let us be clear: A cancer diagnosis is never anyone's fault. In fact, a study published earlier this year found that two-thirds of adult cancer incidences can be attributed to random gene mutations that drive tumor growth.

So is there really anything you can do to avoid it? While there's no foolproof way to ensure you'll never receive a diagnosis, certain cancer-fighting strategies may be more effective than others. According to the latest special issue in ecancermedicalscience, what you eat appears to be the most important factor you can influence. “Good nutrition is incredibly important when it comes to cancer prevention,” says  Anna Taylor, R.D., a clinical dietitian at the Cleveland Clinic.

RELATED: 5 Cancer Myths You Should Stop Believing Right Now

Bigger Waistline = Bigger Cancer Risk
Guest editor of ecancermedicalscience's special issue, Luca Mazzarella, M.D., Ph.D., of the European Institute of Oncology in Italy, says aiming for a body mass index higher than 18.5 but lower than 25 is your best bet for protecting yourself against cancer. That's because being overweight can increase your risk of breast cancer 30 to 60 percent, according to the Prevent Cancer Foundation, and belly fat can up your risk by 43 percent. Weight gain, namely from fat, increases your body’s levels of inflammation, which promotes cancer growth, and since fat cells produce estrogen, excess levels could promote the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer. Still, that doesn't mean you should go on some type of extreme diet. Mazzarella notes that deprivation diets can actually raise your cancer risk by robbing you the most of certain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants; they can also contribute to endocrine issues.

RELATED: This Easy Veggie Trick Fights Cancer

Are Antioxidants All They’re Cracked Up to Be?
“Phytonutrients and certain antioxidant vitamins and minerals are a newer area of focus in nutrition research that becomes more and more exciting every year,” says Taylor, who explains that they are a type of plant compound that have a ton of health benefits. "Many of these phytonutrients appear to play an important role in decreasing cancer risk by protecting cells from DNA damage or mutation, reducing inflammation, and stimulating the immune system to help destroy mutated cells.” Examples of phytonutrients include resveratrol (found in red wine), carotenoids (found in dark green, red, orange, purple, and blue veggies), ellagic acid (found in cranberries), and flavonoids (found in dark chocolate, wine, and tea).

For instance, in a 2014 Cancer Cell International study, researchers found that the antioxidants in red wine blocked the growth of lung cancer—the most deadly type of cancer. (Pinot Noir did the job best.) Meanwhile, in one Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention study, women with invasive breast cancer who consumed better quality diets had a lower risk of death compared with those who didn't eat as many healthy foods.

RELATED: The Best (and Worst) Foods to Protect Yourself from Breast Cancer

Your Cancer-Fighting Menu
Research shows that a plant-based diet rich in colorful fruits and vegetables (at least five to nine servings per day!) and whole grains—and low in saturated fat, salt, and sugar—is associated with a significantly reduced risk for many types of cancer, says Taylor. Just keep this in mind: "Although research supports that many foods contain nutrition components that correlate with a decreased risk for cancer, the supplemental forms of these nutrition components do not seem to work by themselves and have occasionally been shown to actually increase risk," says Taylor. 

The bottom line: Unfortunately, in most cases, being diagnosed with cancer isn't within your control. But Mazzarella points out that it's important to be aware of what you eat because it may be the biggest factor influencing cancer risk that you can affect.

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