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Published on March 24, 2021

How What You Eat Can Affect Your Risk of Cancer

It’s no secret that the food we eat has a big impact on our health. Research suggests that certain foods can increase—or decrease—a person’s risk of getting certain diseases, including cancer.

Wondering how to optimize your plate for prevention? Try these tips for eating well and reducing your risk of cancer:

Eat a plant-based diet.

This is one of the most important recommendations to help reduce a person’s risk for cancer development. That doesn’t mean that you have to go completely vegetarian. A plant-based diet puts a bigger emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts—essentially anything that comes from the ground—with smaller portions of animal products.

Research shows that a plant-based diet has the potential to reduce the risk of many types of cancers, particularly colorectal, breast and gastrointestinal cancers.

The reason? Plant-based foods provide a wide variety of nutrients, including various vitamins, minerals and fiber. Plant foods also help promote a healthy weight and being overweight is one of the leading risk factors in terms of cancer development.

Embrace variety.

Despite its name, a plant-based diet doesn’t mean eating the same salad for every meal. In fact, the bigger the assortment of food, the more cancer-fighting nutrients your body gets.

If you’re looking for a way to add variety into your diet, experiment in the kitchen. Taste and food preference can change as you age, and different cooking methods can affect the flavor and texture of food. So have fun in the kitchen and try different cooking methods. You might find that those boiled brussels sprouts that you hate are delicious when you roast them.

Limit processed meats and red meat, alcohol and foods that can cause weight gain.

Processed meats—or meat that has been cured, smoked or undergone other processes to transform flavor or improve preservation—are carcinogenic, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. Once eaten, they can lead cancer-causing compounds to form inside the body.

The agency also says red meat is probably carcinogenic. When cooked at high temperatures, including grilling and charring, carcinogens can form. Frequent consumption of red meat may also increase a person’s risk of cancer, particularly colorectal cancer.

Instead of red meat, add more lean chicken, other poultry and fish to your diet. Just remember to have those in controlled portion sizes as well.

If you are going to eat red meat, the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) says to limit your intake to no more than 18 ounces per week. In addition, use marinades to precook the meat and lessen the time on the grill. You can also add a layer of foil to the grill while cooking to prevent fat dripping down and causing flames that will char the meat and cook it at higher temperatures. Consider other cooking methods too, such as baking and using a slow cooker.

Another cancer contributor: alcohol consumption. For women, the AICR recommends having no more than one drink per day and for men no more than two. But for women who have a greater risk of breast cancer, for example, it’s recommended to have no more than two or three drinks per week.

Because obesity can also put people at a higher risk for cancer, you should limit high-calorie foods that can contribute to weight gain. This includes sugary drinks, fried foods, fast-food items and other processed junk foods.

Don’t do it all at once.

Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t try to overhaul your diet all at once. Instead, start with one manageable change that you can easily maintain. As that first change becomes habit, you can modify your diet further.

Look to outpatient nutrition services at Wayne UNC for help with your food choices at home. Take part in chronic disease management education and get counseling to help lose weight.

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