Does cancer have a nutritional connection that can help alleviate our risk of facing the disease? Can a proper diet have a positive impact for those of us who have already been diagnosed?
The answer is yes, according to experts and a cancer survivor who discovered potential links between cancer and nutrition first-hand.
We’ve talked with a 13-year survivor about her diagnosis of late-stage fallopian tube cancer at age 52, and her extensive research that led to her to write The Ultimate Anti-Cancer Cookbook.
We’ve also gathered input from experts on how the food we eat can help alleviate the risk of cancer, and how a healthy diet with specific foods can help those who are already living with the disease.
This article is about a survivor’s experience with the disease, and how her journey with cancer led to her extensive research on food and its relationship to cancer. We’ve also included advice from The National Cancer Institute and other organizations on which foods to avoid and diets that could help with cancer prevention.
Let’s start by introducing Pam Braun, a former chef and restaurant owner who was diagnosed in 2004 with late-stage fallopian tube cancer.
Cancer Diagnosis Leads to Research of the Link Between Food and Cancer
Given a 15 percent chance of survival and a 75 percent chance of recurrence, Braun’s fierce determination to do all she could through her cancer journey – in conjunction with traditional medical treatment – compelled her to begin researching the science of food and its relationship to cancer.
After the initial shock of her diagnosis, Braun decided she was going to do everything she could to stay here. So she started researching a cancer prevention diet and sharing her discoveries.
Now 65, Braun gives talks on her research, and what experts suggest we should and should not eat to help decrease the chances of cancer and its recurrence. Braun is not a dietician, nutritionist, nurse or doctor. Rather, she has first-hand experience as a survivor who spent years researching the link between food and cancer.
She noted experts now say that one-third of all cancers might be avoided with diet and exercise. For instance, 50 percent of all colon cancers and 38 percent of breast cancers could be avoided with diet and exercise, according to a study by the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Braun also discovered that certain foods – mostly tested in labs with rats and mice – are shown to cause cancer, while other foods have shown to prevent it. So she started putting together a guide around those food groups.
Seven Foods That Can Lower the Risk of Cancer
Braun’s exploration of food and its link to cancer led her to the following recommendations by The World Cancer Research Fund and American Institute for Cancer Research. We’ve complemented Braun’s findings with input from other organizations that are working to raise awareness of food and its possible links to cancer.
1. Say No to Sugar
Sugary drinks like sodas, and energy-dense foods such as cookies and candy, should be consumed in moderation – if consumed at all.
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center states that the high amounts of sugar in the typical Western diet might increase the risk of breast cancer and metastasis to the lungs.
Sugar has empty calories, and too much of it could lead to obesity, which could ultimately raise our risk of getting cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Braun has personally eliminated refined sugar from her diet. She stays away from things that contain refined sugar, such as white bread.
2. Say Yes to Veggies, Fruits and Whole Grains
Eating at least 2½ cups of a variety of vegetables and fruits a day may reduce our risk of getting cancer, experts say.
Overall evidence from the American Cancer Society suggests that eating fruits and veggies might lower our risk for a few types of cancers, such as colon, esophagus, lung, mouth, throat, stomach, rectum and voice box.
Additionally, researchers at the National Cancer Institute are investigating links between the risk of cancer and the intake of “cruciferous” vegetables, which contain special compounds that may help prevent cancer.
These vegetables include arugula, bok choy, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, radishes, turnips, and watercress.
Other foods like grains and legumes contain phytic acid – a natural substance found in plant seeds – which is being studied in the prevention of cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.
Braun’s diet includes berries, citrus fruits, kale, and spinach. She also is a big fan of fresh herbs, like oregano, because her research discovered there are more antioxidants per gram weight in the herb than blueberries.
The American Cancer Society states that fruits and veggies are rich sources of antioxidants – which include vitamins C and E and other phytochemicals – and those of us who eat them may be at lower risk for some types of cancer.
3. Reduce Red Meat
Braun suggests limiting all red meats, such as beef, pork, and lamb.
In a study conducted by the American Institute for Cancer Research, red meat contains substances that are linked to colon cancer, she said.
This study allows for 18 ounces a week with the goal of getting it down to 11 ounces. However, Braun personally doesn’t eat any red meat at all and hasn’t consumed a piece of processed meat in 13 years.
4. Restrict Salt
According to Braun’s research, 1,500 milligrams of salt a day is plenty.
That’s a little less than a teaspoon a day if you’re cooking. If you’re not cooking – or if you’re buying processed foods – you need to read your labels.
The American Cancer Society states that lowering our intake of sodium might help lower the risk of some cancers.
Salt is also known to increase risks of other ailments like heart disease and high blood pressure, and therefore limiting intake is recommended by the American Heart Association.
5. Avoid Processed Meats
If meat has been smoked, cured or salted – or contains any kind of preservative – it’s not good for us, Braun said.
The World Health Organization conducted a study in 2002 on diet, nutrition and the prevention of chronic diseases. The report advises “to moderate the consumption of preserved meat to reduce the risk of cancer.”
Meat is typically processed through the addition of preservatives like salt or sodium nitrate, which could increase the chance of this food to cause cancer, experts say. For instance, eating large amounts of processed meat could lead to an increased risk of colorectal and stomach cancers, according to the American Cancer Society.
If you must eat red meat, Braun emphasized the importance of cooking it properly.
For instance, any meat, and that includes chicken and fish, should not be cooked at high heat. That’s because when you cook meat at a high heat, carcinogens form, which is a cancer-causing agent.
“The grill marks and the black stuff on chicken that tastes so good – it’s carcinogenic,” Braun said.
The American Cancer Society suggests other cooking techniques, such as braising, steaming, poaching or stewing, to produce fewer chemicals that might increase our risk of cancer.
6. Limit Alcohol
Braun drinks a four-ounce glass of red wine at night with her supper, which aligns with expert advice she discovered through her research.
If you drink alcohol at all, the American Institute for Cancer Research recommends two for men and one for women a day.
That intake translates to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.
But even drinking a few of these a week might be linked to a higher risk of breast cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, which states that alcohol can raise our risk of cancers in the breast, colon, esophagus, liver, mouth, throat and voice box – and may also raise the risk of pancreatic cancer.
7. Consume Healthy Fats
The only fats and oils that Braun eats are canola oil and olive oil, which are said to decrease the risk of heart disease.
Braun advises staying away from oils such as safflower oil and palm oil, which she says is typically used to help preserve certain foods.
While canola oil and olive oil work great for Braun’s diet, the American Cancer Society has been unable to determine, indefinitely, if fat intake raises or lowers the risk of getting cancer.
However, some reports have indicated that those with high amounts of fat in their diet have higher rates of cancers like breast, colon, and prostate.
A Healthy Diet Can Reduce the Risk of Cancer but Do Your Research to Find What Works for You
While scientific research is ongoing in regards to food and its relationship to cancer, some findings suggest that consuming certain foods may reduce our risk, while other foods are best to avoid or consume in moderation.
Braun’s personal findings on the topic prompted her to make the following list of daily don’ts:
- Red meat including beef, lamb, and pork
- Processed meat including anything smoked, cured or salted, or anything with added chemicals and preservatives
- Sugar and processed foods, refined sugars and simple carbohydrates, like white bread
- Bad fats like palm oil
- Salt (limit to 1,500 milligrams a day)
Braun spent many years conducting her research and suggests others do the same, to get a better idea of what’s out there. With so many studies provided on the topic, it’s important to discern the information and do your own research.
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