There’s no shortage of healthy food tips out there for those of us who worry about the connection between diet and cancer. In fact, the amount of general health and diet information available to us here in 2013 can be pretty overwhelming. One article says that we can eat organic veggies to fight off disease, but another says we can’t. One talking head on TV says that beef will kill you, while another says we should avoid carbs. Worst of all, the media elevates even the slightest statistical correlation between a given food and a deadly disease to the status of natural law. “Study shows French fries cause baldness.” Great. Thanks, media. It can’t possibly be more complicated than that.
But the connection between diet and cancer is actually kind of slippery. Think of it as an ongoing research project that’s playing out in print media, on the Internet and in the bookstores. You’ll sort through a lot of claims in your quest to understand what we do and don’t know about diet and cancer, but the good news is that if one tip doesn’t actually help, it’s probably not gonna hurt.
This week we’ve reached out to authors, nutritionists and entrepreneurs to see what they think about diet and cancer. Here are the nine things that these health professionals, organic living experts and cancer survivors believe about the food you eat and how it affects your body’s fight against cancer.
9 Ways That Diet and Cancer Are Connected
1. A generally poor diet may set you up for cancer. Author Holy Clegg has worked with medical professionals to develop cookbooks that focus on the connection between diet and cancer, arthritis and diabetes. Her experience shows her that what we’re eating can make a big difference when it comes to cancer. “Thirty-five percent of all cancers have a nutritional relationship,” she says. “It’s not about one ‘deadly’ food that gives you cancer – it’s about a lifestyle of healthier eating.”
If cancer concerns you but your diet contains a lot of red meat, fat, sugar or alcohol, start by cutting back. Take some time to experiment with healthier foods. Your tastes won’t change overnight, but healthy eaters actually come to crave the foods that are good for them – and you will too.
2. Cancer cells have a sweet tooth. “Cancer is not prevented by specific foods, but by a general way of eating,” says Dr. Greg Nigh, a naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist who specializes in cancer treatment. For him, it’s important to make sure we’re not feeding the cancer cells that might be lurking in our body. “Cancer is prevented through a dietary strategy that moves cells away from using carbohydrates as a primary fuel source and toward using fat as a primary fuel source. Not only will this bring natural weight loss – it also creates an environment in the body in which cancer cells have no fuel.”
3. Fatty acids are more important than you think. Omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids are known as essential fatty acids, and they’re important for growth and development. But there’s a big difference between omega-6 fats and omega-3 fats. Dr. Chris Niedzinski, a chiropractor with clinical experience in Michigan since 2005, stresses that balancing the two is very important. “Grass-fed, free-range and wild animals all have the correct ratio of omega-6 to omega-3: two to one,” he says. “When you throw off this ratio, inflammation results, and that’s a key factor in cancer development. Corn-fed cows have a ratio that looks more like 21 to one.”
4. When you cook meat, you create carcinogens. It’s not enough to eat organic, pasture-fed beef, though. If you’re charring a steak from a grass-fed cow on the grill, you’re taking a risk. “Eating a lot of overcooked meat is known to increase the risk of cancer,” says Dr. Kathy Gruver, a naturopath and health and wellness expert with over 20 years of experience. Health coach, writer and cancer survivor Chris Wark also notes that cooking meat at high temperature creates dangerous compounds that have been linked to cancer.
The problem is that while medium-rare meat contains 66% fewer cancer-causing chemicals, eating it increases your risk of foodborne illness. “Boiled meat,” says Wark, “as in stews and soups, is considered by some to be the safest cooking method because it does not create carcinogens and it still kills bacteria.” According to Wark, researchers have found that marinating meat with particular spices and herbs can actually block the formation of carcinogens: “One study found that a marinade containing garlic, ginger, thyme, rosemary and chili pepper reduced carcinogen formation by 90% in pan-fried beef.”
5. A high-calorie diet may put you at risk. According to double-board certified nutritionist Dr. Michael Wald, the Director of Nutritional Services at Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco, P.C., it’s not just what you eat that can cause cancer, but how much you eat. “Generally speaking,” he says, “the higher one’s caloric intake beyond their metabolic needs, the higher one’s risk of virtually all degenerative diseases, including cancer.”
Of course, when you follow healthy food tips, you pretty much automatically cut your calories – and as it turns out, that might just save you from a prolonged battle against cancer.
6. Impulse eating is probably bad. Dr. Vijaya Nair, the CEO and co-founder of JIVA, a bioneutraceutical company, tells us that recent studies highlight the importance of regular mealtimes with no snacking in between. “In the study, two groups of mice were given the same food,” she says. “The first group could eat all they wanted for breakfast, but the food was removed afterwards. Six hours later, they were again given all they wanted, then had the remaining food removed. The second group had access to the same food around the clock. Both groups were injected with the flu and with cancer cells – and those with scheduled meals were 97% more likely to fight off the disease.”
7. Organic food can reduce your exposure to pesticides. Many of our experts noted that, as of this moment, there’s no research that clearly shows you should eat organic fruits and vegetables to fight cancer. But countless studies do show a link between chemicals and cancer, and Sharon Palmer, a registered dietician and food writer, believes this is worth thinking about. “While there’s no evidence that organic foods reduce your risk of cancer,” she says, “it does seem to be a good idea to reduce your exposure to pesticides. Some studies have shown that farm workers and community members who live near farms and are exposed to higher pesticide levels have higher risks of cancer.”
Most health experts aren’t shy about promoting organic living for common-sense reasons just like this. When you eat organic, it’s a good bet that you’re doing something right. There’s a reason Hidden Valley doesn’t make a pesticide-flavored ranch dressing, after all.
Many of them also believe that dietary choices do matter, even if we don’t fully understand what precisely they do for the body. Physician and author Dr. Mary Ann Block has been studying the connection between diet and cancer ever since her mother beat terminal lung cancer partly, she believes, thanks to dietary changes. Dr. Block is convinced that the organic designation matters. “Eat organic foods that look on your plate the way they do in nature,” she says. “Stick with fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs, meat and fish, and make sure all are non-GMO. The fish should be wild and the meats should be grown without hormones and antibiotics.”
8. The antioxidants in superfoods are a secret weapon. Although our experts note that you can’t just use one or two cancer-busters to make up for a generally poor diet, Dr. Nancy Simpkins, a board-certified internist based in New Jersey, suggests complementing nutritious meals with superfoods. “The superfoods and their antioxidant properties stabilize cell membranes, preventing normal cells from turning into cancer cells,” she says. One of her most effective healthy food tips? Integrating superfoods like blueberries, oats, pumpkin, broccoli, salmon, spinach, turkey, yogurt and walnuts into your meals as often as possible. You’ll get a big dose of antioxidants, which may help protect against cancer.
9. Cancer just hates green tea. Culinary nutritionist Andria Barrett highlights the benefits of a traditional and highly popular health booster: green tea. “Green tea contains high levels of the antioxidant ECGC,” she says. “ECGC helps to reduce the formation of carcinogens in the body and suppresses cancer promotion. Some studies show that greater green tea consumption leads to a lower incidence of cancer – one piece of research from the International Journal of Cancer showed that one cup of green tea a day lowers your risk of ovarian cancer by 54%.”
Think you can incorporate all of these healthy food tips into your diet to help protect yourself from cancer? If it seems a bit overwhelming at first, just remember that if you can eat more fresh fruits and vegetables – and if you eat organic meats only on occasion – you’re doing a lot more for your health than you probably realize. We believe that a lifestyle centered on organic living naturally leads to the sort of diet that helps to prevent certain cancers, and most experts agree that it’s an important way to stay fit and ready to fight off disease.
Have you used certain foods to help recover from a cancer diagnosis? Do you have any extra info that points to a link between diet and cancer? Comment below to provide some healthy food tips to our other readers!