Can Diet Play a Role in Cancer Prevention?
How much do your eating habits affect your risk for cancer? Check out the latest on what foods may help prevent cancer.

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Can Diet Play a Role in Cancer Prevention?

We know that smoking or getting too much sun can cause cancer. But what about eating hot dogs and lunch meats? What about skipping the broccoli and other vegetables and fruits? Would you be surprised to know that what we eat can influence our risk for certain types of cancer?

More than 190,000 cancer deaths in the United States each year can be attributed to physical activity and diet habits, according to the American Cancer Society. A smart diet can substantially cut a person's lifetime risk of developing or dying from cancer.

What we know now
Research is continuing every day in this complex area. Here are some eating tips based on the latest cancer prevention guidelines:

Load up on fruit and veggies. People who eat a lot of fruits and vegetables have a lower risk of getting cancer of the stomach, lung, mouth, larynx and esophagus. They may also have a lower risk of colon, pancreatic and prostate cancer. Experts recommend eating 1 to 2½ cups of fruits and 1 to 4 cups of vegetables each day. The amount depends on your calorie needs. Dark green and orange vegetables and legumes are particularly important. Sorry, though, no French fries. There is no evidence that white potatoes offer cancer protection.

Eat whole grains instead of refined. Whole grains, including wheat, oats and barley, may help reduce the risk of cancer. Switch to whole-wheat pastas and brown rice. Watch the amount of refined carbohydrates you eat, such as donuts, pastries and sugar-sweetened breakfast cereals.

Limit red meat and processed meat. Red and processed meats are linked with greater risks of cancer of the colon and rectum. Evidence also suggests that it may be associated with prostate and other cancers. Red meat is beef, pork and lamb. Processed meats include bacon, hot dogs and cold cuts. Studies haven't confirmed exactly why red meat and processed meat may contribute to cancer. Part of the reason may be that when it is cooked at high temperatures, cancer-causing substances are formed.

Limit alcohol consumption if you drink at all. Drinking alcohol increases the risk of breast cancer for women. It also makes it more likely for both women and men to get cancers of the liver, esophagus, mouth and larynx. If you do drink, stop at one beverage a day if you are a woman and two if you are a man. A drink is defined as 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits, such as vodka.

Cut down on foods high in fat. More research is needed on fats and their relationship to cancer risk. But some studies have shown that diets high in fat, or certain types of fat, may be linked to colon, lung and postmenopausal breast cancer. And too much fat in the diet can contribute to obesity, which is associated with increased risk of several types of cancers.

Get enough calcium. Though some study results are inconsistent, substantial evidence suggests that calcium may give some protection against cancer of the colon and rectum.

By Emily Gurnon, Contributing Writer
Created on 07/22/2003
Updated on 02/11/2013
  • National Cancer Institute. Red meat consumption.
  • Kushi LH, Doyle C, McCullough M, et al. American Cancer Society guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2012;62:30-67.
  • National Cancer Institute. Fruit and vegetable consumption.
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