The anti-cancer diet

By: Vanessa Chris, Oct 06, 2010

Can the food you eat really help prevent cancer? Here’s what you need to know.

Can a cure for cancer really lie in the food that we eat? Judging by the attention "superfoods" have received lately – in health magazines and daytime talk shows alike – it would seem that chowing down on almonds, blueberries and broccoli all but guarantees you a cancer-free existence.

"Top cancer fighting food" lists seem to vary, but broccoli, tomatoes, avocado, berries and garlic seem to make an appearance on most lists. The thing is, while integrating more fruits and veggies into your diet likely doesn't have an adverse effect, you have to wonder what these so-called superfoods have that other healthy items don't. If you're loading up on lean protein, vegetables and whole grains on a regular basis – while throwing in regular physical activity to boot – are you still at risk of cancer if you don't integrate all of the top "cancer-fighters"?

Daniela Fierini, clinical nutrition practice leader at Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto, is hesitant to promote one healthy food over another.

"There has been evidence to support the notion that certain foods can slow down cancer growth," she says. "According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, the nutrients in certain foods interact in such a way that they improve the body's ability to fight cancer. Scientists are still trying to figure out why."

Fierini says it's the combination of a food's vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals that may determine its cancer-fighting ability – but very little is known about the process. Phytochemicals are chemicals that are naturally found in plants and provide a food's colour, odour and flavour. While nothing has been proven, there is evidence out there to support the idea that these chemicals may be able to stimulate the immune system, block certain substances from becoming carcinogens and potentially cause defected cells to "commit suicide" before replicating, among other things.

While these cancer-fighting chemicals have been found in specific types of plant foods, it's better to look past the specific foods and instead focus on brightly coloured fruits and vegetables in general.

"A lot of cancer-fighting phytochemicals have yet to be discovered, so focusing on specific foods isn't always the way to go. Variety is still very important," she says.

It's also important to note that the links between diet and cancer are only evident with certain types of cancer – such as colorectal, stomach, esophageal and prostate. Genetics, environment and lifestyle which incorporates your level of physical activity also play a role in whether or not you develop cancer.

That being said, there are certain food groups that could help reduce the risk of developing cancer. The most important, and least surprising, is increasing your intake of all fruits, vegetables and legumes – and decreasing your intake of meat products, whether they're lean or not.

"You don't have to eliminate meat, just reduce the number of meals you have per week that contain meat," Fierini says. "Start with two meatless meals per week with a goal of four meatless dinners per week."  An example of a meatless meal would be a bean burrito and salad. 

Try to replace meat with more plant sources of protein, such as chick peas, black beans and lentils. To ensure the maximum amount of nutrients, buy fruits and vegetables that are in season. Wash them thoroughly under cold running water – but don't be too concerned about pesticides.

"Pesticide levels in our foods are pretty low and monitored by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency," Fierini says. "The benefits of increasing the amount of vegetables in your diet far outweigh the pesticides. But if you're concerned – and would like to go organic – just make sure it's 'certified organic'."

Reducing the number of calories you eat per day will also decrease the likelihood of developing certain types of cancers. It's also wise to cut out the alcohol and tobacco.

Tips for integrating more "cancer fighters" into your diet

  • Purchase high fibre cereals to mix into your regular cereal, smoothies or muffins to increase your fibre intake.
  • Shop local. Local farmers' markets frequently feature food at their highest levels of nutrition. Many cities also offer food share options, where boxes of fresh fruit and veggies are delivered to your door. is one such organization.
  • Get in the habit of planning your meals for the week. Try to integrate new and different foods into your diet.
  • Avoid heavily processed foods, and use fatty items like butter and margarine sparingly.
  • Look at the ingredients. The more "real foods" that are featured, and the higher up they are in the list, the healthier the food.

Vanessa Chris is an award-winning journalist specializing in the realm of business writing. Since graduating from the University of Western Ontario’s Graduate Program in Journalism, her work has appeared in such publications as Canadian Real Estate magazine, various Post City and Metroland publications, The London Free Press and a bi-weekly lifestyle/relationship column in the Toronto Star.