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Expert Q&A: The Anti-Cancer Diet

An interview with Karen Collins, MS, RD.

Should cancer survivors follow any specific diet? Are there any foods, nutrients, or supplements that they should avoid?

In general, cancer survivors don't seem to be any different from anyone else in terms of what they should eat. One exception would be those taking anti-estrogen medications -- like tamoxifen or aromatase inhibitors – who may need to avoid soy foods. Soy contains a plant form of estrogen, so it could work against these medications.

If you’re a cancer survivor and the effects of your cancer – or its treatment – are making it hard to eat well, see a registered dietitian. Together you can figure out ways to get the nutrients you need.

Could you describe the ideal diet for cancer prevention?

There is no one specific ideal diet that is perfect for all of us. So we can each come up with a diet that's protective and still works with our lifestyles and food preferences.

But here’s an easy way to picture a healthy, protective diet. Every time you eat, aim to have two-thirds of your plate made up of healthy plant foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Then have the remaining one-third, or less, made up of animal foods, preferably lean poultry, seafood, and very limited amounts of red meat. To add flavor, use moderate amounts of healthy oils, herbs, spices, citrus, and vinegars.

A protective diet can still fit in occasional treats, but you’d get most of your sweets from fruits instead of candy and cookies. For drinks, you’d want to emphasize water, some tea and coffee, and maybe modest amounts of fruit juice. You’d want to stay away from sugary drinks, because their high calorie content makes it hard to control weight.

Adopting this approach to diet will have big benefits. A 2007 expert report from the American Institute for Cancer Research found that eating like this -- combined with physical activity and weight control -- could prevent one-third of all cancers.  

Some people could find that diet hard to follow. What would you say to them?

Even if that ideal diet doesn’t seem possible to you, don’t be discouraged from taking small steps. It’s not all or nothing. Working any of the recommendations into your lifestyle can help.

For instance, if you could just cut out 200 calories a day – calories you eat out of habit, not hunger – you will lose weight, and that will lower your risk. If the idea of working out 30 to 60 minutes a day seems ridiculous, just try to add in 10-minute walks twice a day.

Now, you won’t get as much cancer protection benefit by making small steps as you would if you followed the full recommendations. But you can still make a difference. You’re much better off doing something to lower your risk of cancer than doing nothing.

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