Cancer and Nutrition


Blueberries won’t save us from cancer. Neither will tomatoes, flaxseed oil, kale or brussels sprouts.

The above, as well as garlic, onions, green tea and many others, have all been proclaimed cancer-preventing “super foods.” While they are all good, nutritious foods and should be part of a balanced diet, we need to abandon the notion that any one food or combination of foods can prevent cancer.

While it’s tempting to think that just adding blueberries to our yogurt will shield us from cancer, we need to take a more comprehensive approach to healthy nutrition, one that avoids the bad as well as embraces the good.

It’s easy to get confused by all the cancer-related nutritional advice. Antioxidants, isoflavones, flavonoids, phytochemicals and lycopene are a few of an alphabet soup of natural ingredients that have been associated with anti-cancer properties, but determining which ones have consistently been shown to prevent which type of cancer is enough to make us give up and reach for the closest bag of chips.

Focusing on Nutrition

Don’t give up. Nutrition is a crucial factor in staying healthy and warding off not only cancer, but diabetes, obesity and heart disease as well. The key is taking a sensible approach and not getting hung up on whether scallions are better than bok choy.

Start by cutting back on the bad stuff, food that has been definitely linked to higher rates of cancer. Eat less meat, particularly red meat. It has no fiber and often has high levels of saturated fat.

Saturated fats, found mainly in animal products such as eggs and whole milk dairy products, and trans fats (aka partially hydrogenated oils), found in many fast foods, fried foods, baked goods and packaged foods, are bad.

And, of course, don’t smoke, and limit your alcohol intake to less than one drink per day for women.

Now, on to the good stuff.

Mediterranean Lifestyle

Don’t think of the changes as a diet. Diets are temporary and often broken. Think of them as an upgrade to a Mediterranean lifestyle.

If it helps, envision yourself in a white linen suit in a villa on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. You’re having dinner on the sunny balcony. What are you eating? Not chips. No, you’re eating a salad, one made with lots of raw and multi-colored veggies (red and yellow peppers, greens, beans, kale, cauliflower, carrots, tomatoes, etc.) As a side dish, some fish or lean meat grilled or cooked in olive oil or canola oil, not vegetable oil. And, for dessert, a fruit plate with watermelon, dried apricots, blueberries and strawberries. The bread and pasta are, of course, whole grain and the portions are one cup or one-quarter of a dinner plate.

The villa on the Amalfi Coast might not be achievable, but the cuisine certainly is.

Anti-Cancer Diet

The best thing you can do for your anti-cancer diet is to focus on plant-based foods. That’s not just salad. Foods that come from plants such as fruits, nuts, grains and legumes are important as well. Meat should be used for flavoring or as a side dish, not the main course.

Concentrate on whole foods. Generally speaking, the less food has been processed and adulterated, the better it is for you. Food author Michael Pollan recommends that you not eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. So it’s fair to say your great-granny would regard Fruit Roll-Ups with deep suspicion and so should you.

Bulk up on fiber. It keeps your digestive tract clean and moves potential cancer-causing compounds out before they can cause real harm. Fiber is naturally found in plant-based foods.

Of course, eating right does not guarantee you will never get cancer. But it can improve your odds and leave you healthier, fitter and happier.

— Kristi Tough, MD
Dr. Tough is a board-certified internist specializing in women’s health at the Center for Specialized Women’s Health at Cleveland Clinic. Her clinical and research interests range from breast cancer screening and prevention, treatment of menopause and optimizing bone health. She strongly believes that all women should be educated advocates for their own health, reproductive decisions and lifestyle choices.