Eating to beat cancer


Do we all worry about getting cancer?

Hasn’t it affected someone close to you in some way?

My mother survived breast cancer twice. Two friends succumbed to ovarian cancer. Another very young friend is battling a rare cancer of the blood. The lifetime risk of cancer in the U.S. is 1 in 3, according to the American Cancer Society.

Here’s the good news: More than half of all cancer deaths could be prevented by making healthier food choices, maintaining a healthy weight and keeping active. That sounds so easy, but in reality, small choices we make every day make a huge difference in our chances of keeping cancer at bay.

Here are some very practical things you can do to help prevent cancer:

1. Eat more plant-based foods. I don’t think you have to cut out meat entirely, but when you plan your meals, add an extra side of veggies or fruit or have them as a snack.

2. Choose fish or poultry most often and choose processed meats — bacon, sausage, hot dogs and deli meats — less often. Less often doesn’t mean never, just less often.

3. For snacks, choose fruit, veggies or a handful of nuts and seeds rather than chips, pretzels, cookies or candy. This also helps reduce your intake of salty foods.

4. The nutrition trend these days is to choose more whole, unprocessed foods. But these buzzwords can be confusing because nearly all foods are processed to some extent. That doesn’t mean don’t eat canned or frozen foods. It means make it yourself from scratch rather than fixing food from a box.

5. Choose food over supplements. I’m still a believer in taking a multivitamin if you think you aren’t getting enough fruits, vegetables and whole grains (and most of us aren’t). But at the same time, I think we have to prioritize healthy eating. A cheeseburger with fries doesn’t have all the nutrients we need on a daily basis. Can you substitute a fruit cup for the fries or add a vegetable side?

6. Consider the scale. Having a body mass index of 30 or higher has been linked to at least 13 different types of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Make it your mission to exercise and lose weight to get your BMI closer to 25. Losing weight requires good choices at most meals. If you haven’t had a salad in a while, choose one, and go easy on the dressing.

The bottom line is you can help prevent cancer in your own life. It all boils down to those daily choices.

Q and A

Q: Is it true weight loss can lower your breast cancer risk?

A: It is for women over the age of 50 who can keep even small amounts of weight off. A study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in December 2019 analyzed data from more than 180,000 women ages 50 and over for 10 years, with two five-year follow-ups.

Researchers found that if the weight loss was sustained over time, even modest amounts of weight loss decreased breast cancer risk. Women who lost up to 10 pounds had a 13% lower risk, and those who lost over 20 pounds had a 26% reduced risk.

Q: What’s the best diet after being diagnosed with breast cancer?

A: You may want to consider a diabetic risk reduction diet. In a study presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium in December 2020, women with stage 1 to stage 3 breast cancer who chose a diabetes diet improved their survival. Called the diabetes risk reduction diet, it included a higher intake of foods such as nuts, coffee and whole fruits, and a lower intake of sugary drinks, trans fats and red meat.

Data from women with stage 1 to 3 breast cancer with a follow-up of 16 years found that those with higher adherence lowered their risk of all-cause death by 33% and 17% for diabetes-related death.

Charlyn Fargo is a registered dietitian at Hy-Vee in Springfield, Ill., and the media representative for the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

For comments or questions, contact her at

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