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Dishing up cancer prevention: Discover what's possible

One person is putting a serving of salad on another person's plate.

Forget trendy foods and nutritional supplements. Making good food choices overall may help cut your cancer risk. Find out what a cancer-protective diet looks like.

Here's something to chew on while you're shopping for groceries or looking over your favorite takeout menu: You're not just feeding your hunger or filling your fridge. You're actually making decisions that could help lower your cancer risk.

The diet-cancer link

Making good food choices overall may help cut your risk of the disease.

Scientists are investigating connections between diet and cancer risk. Some findings suggest certain healthy dietary patterns may guard against specific types of cancer or that other food choices may raise some risks.

How much we eat also plays a role. Oversized, calorie-rich portions can lead to excess weight, which may contribute to at least a dozen different types of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

What you can do

Here's a look at some healthy dietary habits that may help reduce your cancer risk.

Choose more plant-based foods. Studies suggest diets rich in fruits and vegetables may help protect against a number of cancers.

One way plant foods may help is by providing vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

However, no one knows which nutrients might help most. So make sure your diet includes a variety of vegetables, fruits, beans and whole grains.

It's also important to get your nutrients from food rather than supplements. That's because plant compounds found in fruits and veggies may work together to lower cancer risk, according to the ACS. A supplement can't do that for you.

In addition to providing nutrients, a diet rich in plant foods may also lower cancer risk by helping people manage their weight. Many fruits and veggies are naturally lower in calories.

Limit red and processed meat. Eating too much red and processed meat (like hotdogs or bologna) increases the risk for colon cancer and may also increase the risk for breast and prostate cancers.

Cancer-causing compounds may also be formed when red meat is cooked over high heat, charred or grilled over flames.

With processed meats, smoking, curing, salting or adding preservatives may help explain the link, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

Try replacing red meat sometimes with healthier protein options such as fish, poultry or beans. If you do eat red meat, choose lean portions and limit your intake to three portions (totaling 12 to 18 ounces) per week.

Cut back on sweets and sugary drinks. Consuming excessive amounts of sugar-sweetened foods or beverages may contribute to obesity, which in turn increases the risk for many cancers. Try sipping on zero-calorie water with a lemon wedge or unsweetened tea.

Know the risks of alcohol. Alcohol use is the third most preventable cause of cancer, right behind tobacco use and excess body weight, according to the ACS. It’s linked to an increased risk of breast, oral, esophageal, colon and other cancers.

The big picture

When it comes to reducing cancer risk, your efforts should go beyond your diet. Here are a few additional habits that may help you avoid the disease.

  • Don't smoke. Smoking increases the risk for a variety of cancers, including those of the lungs, throat, mouth, esophagus, bladder and cervix.
  • Stay active. Exercising may reduce the risk of breast, colon and other cancers—independently and by promoting weight control.
  • Get screened. Finding precancerous changes early is among the best ways to guard against some types of cancer. Ask your healthcare provider about recommended screenings.

Reviewed 9/28/2021

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