A group of fruit and vegetables are shown shaped into a color-coordinated rainbow.
Eat a rainbow of cancer-fighting foods. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Did you know that cancer is the leading cause of death for both men and women under the age of 85?

Recent data from the National Cancer Institute suggests that over the course of a lifetime, the risk of developing cancer is one in two for men and just over one in three for women.

And, according to the American Cancer Society, one-third of fatal cancer cases could be prevented by being more active, losing weight, or eating a more nutritious diet.

We are often told to follow a nutritious diet, but what exactly does that mean?

When I work with my clients, I tell them to picture a rainbow on their plate. That rainbow includes beans, peas, lentils, fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats (similar to the Mediterranean Diet).

A cancer-preventative diet is one that is rich in all these foods and low in red meats, processed meats and dairy. Unlike the typical white and brown Standard American Diet (SAD), the Mediterranean Diet focuses on brightly-colored produce, legumes and fresh herbs.

This type of diet offers plenty of nutrition plus food that actually tastes good. This is great news, because we all know that if the food doesn’t look appealing and taste good, we won’t eat it.

To simplify things, let’s break down cancer-fighting nutrition into three groups of foods you can add to your diet to help decrease the chance of developing cancer:

  1. Beans, peas, and lentils (legumes): Legumes are not only rich in fiber and antioxidants, they are also void of unhealthy saturated fats, trans fats, and nitrates typically found in fatty red and processed meats. The research is plentiful when it comes to eating more plant-based meals to help reduce the risk of cancer. Swap out the beef in your burrito for beans, or try a black bean burger in place of your greasy beef patty. Or, if you are feeling really adventurous, try lentil-based sloppy joes. Check out the Meatless Monday campaign for more recipe ideas.
  2. Kale and cauliflower: Some of the trendiest vegetables of the year are also some of the most nutrient-dense on the planet. Cauliflower and kale, along with Brussels sprouts, bok choy, cabbage, collards, rutabaga, radishes, turnips, and broccoli all fall into the category of cruciferous vegetables. These vegetables contain compounds that may prevent the growth and spread of cancer cells. Add fresh greens to your morning smoothie, mix bok choy into your stir fry, or roast diced rutabaga with a drizzle of pure maple syrup for a simple side dish.
  3. Tomatoes, watermelon and apricots: Research indicates that diets rich in tomatoes, an excellent source of lycopene, may offer protection against prostate, lung and stomach cancers. Lycopene is the antioxidant that gives tomatoes, watermelon, apricots and guava their vibrant colors. It is also believed to provide health benefits and reduce your risk for cancer. The next time you are craving Italian, cut your pasta with zucchini noodles, extra virgin olive oil, and a hearty splash of tomato sauce for a delicious meal to stave off cancer.

The daily food choices you make can make a big difference in helping you reduce your risk of cancer.

You should strive to incorporate more of these veggies into your daily meal plan, but even if you only add them in occasionally, you will still help to reduce your risk.

If you only remember three things, remember these: Swap out red meat for beans or lentils, eat leafy greens daily, and top your vegetables at dinner with a hearty tomato sauce for a cancer-fighting meal.

Can’t I just take a supplement and not worry about my diet?

And, finally, if you are wondering if you can simply pop an antioxidant-loaded pill instead of changing your diet, the answer is an emphatic no.

Both the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Cancer Society recommend whole foods first.

Why? Because there are more than 100,000 disease-fighting phytonutrients in our food. You may find one or two of these phytonutrients and antioxidants in a pill, but the synergistic effects of such micronutrients may work far differently when isolated in a pill rather than being consumed in whole through food.

For example, when beta carotene supplements were provided to help reduce cancer risk, the outcome was just the opposite—the risk of lung cancer actually increased among smokers. The bottom line is this: food first. If we don’t know the specific phytonutrients or how they work synergistically with other components within that food, how can we replicate the holistic effects with a supplement?

If you’d like more nutrition tips and advice on this topic, visit www.oncologynutrition.org.

If you or someone you know is preparing to win against cancer, we are ready to help. Call us at 855.SHCANCER (855.742.26237), Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. You may leave a message if you call after hours and we will return your call the next business day.