It’s the scariest disease, and one of the most common. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, and about 40% of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetimes. But while genetics does play a role, the vast majority of cancers are largely preventable: As many as 90 to 95% of cancer deaths are attributed to lifestyle factors including smoking, alcohol consumption, sun exposure, obesity, stress and – you guessed it – diet. What that means: how you live and what you eat can slash your chances of getting cancer.
What to eat minimally or avoid: red meat, processed meat (like pepperoni, salami, hot dogs and bacon) and charred meat are linked with a higher incidence of cancer. Excess sodium increases the likelihood of gastric cancer, and trans fats in margarine, fried foods and processed baked goods can double your chances of breast cancer. Sugar and refined carbs boost the risk of prostate and other cancers. And watch out for cancer-provoking foods you might not have expected, like canned beans, tomato sauce and coconut milk in your pantry; if you didn’t specifically seek out cans free of bisphenol-A (BPA), they’re probably lined with the chemical, linked with breast, prostate and other cancers.
Step one: dramatically increase your intake of fruits and vegetables. The American Institute of Cancer Research estimates that increasing daily intake of fruits and vegetables to five servings per day could cut cancer rates by as much as 20%. They’re loaded with antioxidants to combat oxidative stress – an overabundance of free radicals that can lead to DNA damage and the progression of cancer. Fruits and vegetables are also high in anti-inflammatory compounds that offset inflammation, a key factor in cancer development, tumor growth and progression. Add healthy fats from nuts, olives and avocado, lean protein (especially fatty fish) and plenty of legumes; they’re rich in fiber, which is linked with a decreased incidence of cancer and other diseases.
Ready to better protect your body? Fill your plate with these food groups, shown to reduce your risk:
Broccoli, cauliflower and other crucifers are high in glucosinolates and other compounds that reduce the risk of lung, colorectal and other cancers. They’re so potent, studies suggest cruciferous vegetables protect against cancer more effectively than the total intake of fruits and veg.
Eat These: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, bok choy, arugula, turnips, radishes.
Dark Leafy Greens
Spinach, kale and other deep-green leafies are rich in carotenoids, especially beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin – antioxidants linked with a lower risk of breast and other cancers. They’re also high in folate, a B vitamin that can repair DNA damage and may reduce the risk of some cancers. Some, like kale, arugula and cabbage, do double duty as members of the crucifer family.
Eat These: spinach, kale, chard, lettuce, collard greens, beet greens, watercress, arugula.
Red Fruits and Vegetables
Tomatoes and watermelon, contain lycopene, a potent antioxidant that promotes apoptosis (or cancer cell death), inhibits metastasis (the spread of cancer to other parts of the body) and protects against prostate, breast and other cancers.
Eat These: tomatoes, watermelon, pink grapefruit, guava, papayas, red carrots, persimmons.
Blackberries and red cabbage are rich in anthocyanins, antioxidants that reduce inflammation, stimulate apoptosis, inhibit metastasis and protect against breast, prostate, colon, lung and other cancers. Some, like red grapes, black plums and blueberries, also contain resveratrol, another cancer-preventive antioxidant.
Eat These: beets, red cabbage, cherries, pomegranates, blackberries, blueberries, eggplant, purple cauliflower, black plums, prunes, red or purple grapes.
Yellow-Orange Fruits and Vegetables
Sweet potatoes and mangoes are packed with cancer-preventive carotenoids, especially betacarotene and alpha-carotene. Dark leafy greens are also loaded with beta-carotene (the orange color is masked by chlorophyll). Some, like sweet potatoes and winter squash, are also high in fiber, which reduces the risk of colorectal and other forms of cancer.
Eat These: carrots, winter squash, pumpkin, papaya, mangoes, apricots, yellow beets, dark leafy greens.
Berries are rich in an array of phytochemicals (flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, ellagitannins, lignans and other compounds) that reduce inflammation, minimize DNA damage, encourage apoptosis, mitigate cancer cell proliferation and protect against a variety of cancers. And berries are packed with cancer-preventive fiber and vitamin C, which may slow cancer growth.
Eat These: blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, mulberries, elderberries.
Onions and garlic contain cancer preventive sulfur compounds that support the elimination of carcinogens and inhibit the growth of cancer cells. Onions are also rich in quercetin, a compound with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities that protects against ovarian cancer and other forms of cancer. And red onions contain anticancer anthocyanins.
Eat These: onions, garlic, leeks, chives, scallions, shallots, ramps.
Beans, peas and lentils are loaded with cancer-preventive fiber, and studies link a higher intake of legumes with a significant decrease in colorectal cancers. They also contain a compound called inositol hexaphosphate (IP6) that reduces cancer cell proliferation and induces apoptosis in prostate, breast, skin, liver and colorectal cancer cells.
Eat These: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, pinto beans, white beans, lentils, mung beans, soybeans.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds contain a variety of protective compounds, including anti-inflammatory vitamin E and monounsaturated fats, and studies link a higher consumption of nuts with a reduced risk of digestive cancers. Brazil nuts are also loaded with selenium, and peanuts contain resveratrol. Flaxseeds are rich in lignans, anti-inflammatory compounds associated with a lower incidence of breast and other cancers.
Eat These: almonds, walnuts, cashews, peanuts, Brazil nuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, flaxseeds.
Tea contains a number of cancer preventive compounds that inhibit carcinogenesis, the process by which normal cells transform into cancer cells. Green tea is the most concentrated dietary source of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a powerful, cancer-protective antioxidant also found in a variety of other teas, while black tea is rich in a variety of potent polyphenols.
Drink These: green tea, matcha, black tea, rooibos tea, honeybush tea.
A healthy diet and lifestyle are critical for reducing cancer risk, and safe, science-backed supplements can enhance your protection. Here’s what the research shows.
Curcumin, extracted from turmeric root (Curcuma longa), is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, impacting several processes in the development and spread of cancer. Studies show curcumin can suppress the initiation, progression and metastasis — the spread of cancer cells to different areas of the body — in breast, lung, gastric, colorectal, prostate and a variety of other cancers. Turmeric powder itself contains very low levels of curcumin (on average, about 3%), so concentrated curcumin extracts are best. It’s important to choose the right form; curcumin is poorly absorbed by the body and rapidly metabolized and excreted, so look for a high-potency curcumin extract with added turmeric oil and piperine (black pepper extract) to enhance absorption and maximize its effects.
Oligomeric Proanthocyanidins (OPCs)
OPCs are polyphenolic antioxidants naturally found in a variety of plants; supplements are usually made from grape seed extract and pine bark extract, super-concentrated sources of OPCs. These potent compounds affect several key processes in the initiation and development of cancer, and studies show they can inhibit cancer cell proliferation, induce apoptosis (cancer cell death) and suppress tumor growth in colorectal, prostate and other cancers. OPCs also help overcome mind & body boosters chemoresistance — the ability of cancer cells to evade or adapt to chemotherapy drugs. They’re poorly absorbed, so look for a standardized formula designed for enhanced bioavailability. And because studies suggest OPCs are more effective when combined with curcumin, choose a formula that includes both, or take your OPCs with a high quality curcumin extract.
From the boswellia serrata tree, native to India, boswellia contains a variety of active acids; one of these, called AKBA (acetyl-11-ketobeta-boswellic acid), is especially powerful in inhibiting inflammation. Boswellic acids impact several key mediators in the development and spread of cancer, and studies show their efficacy in the prevention and treatment of breast, prostate, cervical, colorectal, lung, pancreatic and other cancers. It’s poorly absorbed, so look for products with added piperine to enhance absorption. Choose a formula standardized for at least 70% boswellic acids, including 10% AKBA.
Crucial for immune function, Vitamin D may also slow or prevent many types of cancers. A number of studies link a higher intake of vitamin D with a reduced incidence of colorectal cancer, and other studies show an association between low blood levels of vitamin D and an increased risk of breast, prostate, gastric and other cancers. Research also suggests vitamin D may decrease cancer cell growth, promote apoptosis, suppress tumor formation and reduce angiogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels that feed tumors. The majority of our vitamin D comes from the sun; if you live in a climate with low levels of sunlight, wear sunscreen daily or follow a meat-free diet, you may be at a higher risk for deficiency. Look for high-potency vitamin D3.