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Inflammation and cancer: Why your diet is important

Focused on Health - May 2014

By Sara Taschery

What does inflammation have to do with cancer?plant foods

“Prolonged inflammation can damage your body’s healthy cells and tissue, and weaken your immune system,” says Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietitian at MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine Center. This weakened state can increase your risk of diseases like cancer. 

However, not all inflammation is bad. Your body’s inflammatory response is essential for you to heal. This response tells your body’s immune system to send white blood cells and chemicals to help fight off infection or repair an injury.

But when inflammation persists, or when your body triggers a response when you don’t have an infection or injury, it’s cause for concern.

Other causes of chronic inflammation can include obesity, smoking, stress, lack of exercise, exposure to secondhand smoke and diet choices. And worse, chronic inflammation often shows no signs.

The good news is you can reduce chronic inflammation and lower your cancer risks. “It starts with your diet,” Maxson says. An anti-inflammatory diet also can help you avoid diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.

Maxson shares some anti-inflammatory diet tips.

Add more plant foods to your plate

Plant foods are the only foods that contain anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. Plus, they are high in the antioxidants and fiber your body needs to stay cancer-free. Fiber also can lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein in the blood that signals inflammation.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends filling at least two-thirds of your plate with plant foods.  blueberries

  • Make one-half of your plate non-starchy vegetables and/or fruits of all colors. 
  • Make one-quarter of your plate whole grains or starchy vegetables, like potatoes, corn and peas. 

Limit processed foods

“Choosing whole, fresh foods and doing your own prep maximizes nutrients and phytonutrients,” Maxson says. “These nutrients keep us healthy in many ways, while reducing inflammation.” 

Processed foods are lower in nutrients and higher in refined sugars, flours and fats. They’re also usually loaded with artificial ingredients that can increase CRP levels. 

  • Skip highly processed foods, like fast food, packaged and instant foods.
  • Steer clear of processed meats, like deli-meats, bacon, sausage, hotdogs and pepperoni.
  • Avoid sodas and sports drinks.

Balance fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids can help protect your body from chronic inflammation. On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation.

“Many Americans are trying to include more omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. But, they’re still eating too much omega-6 fatty acids,” Maxson says. 

The key is balance, so you’ll take in more omega-3 and less omega-6.

  • Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, halibut, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pecans and avocado.
  • Use oils high in omega-3, such as olive and canola.
  • Avoid or limit oils high in omega-6, such as corn, sunflower, peanut and soybean.
  • Read the ingredients on packaged foods. Limit foods made with refined vegetable oils high in omega-6. You’ll find these oils in most snack foods, cookies, crackers and sweets.

Limit red meat

Eating too much red meat, like pork, beef, lamb, deer and buffalo, can increase your cancer risks. Try to limit red meat to 18 oz. or less each week to keep your cancer risks low.nuts

Maxson suggests replacing red meat with these high protein foods to help reduce chronic inflammation. 

  • Choose animal proteins, such as skinless chicken, turkey and fish. 
  • Replace animal proteins with plant proteins, such as beans and lentils, at some meals. 
  • Choose meat, milk, cheese and eggs from pasture-raised and hormone-free animals. 

Eat more fermented foods

Fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and miso contain probiotics that help reduce inflammation. To get the most health perks, eat at least one small serving of a fermented food each day.

  • Choose low-fat, plain organic yogurt and kefir.
  • Try fermented vegetables, such as sauerkraut and kimchi, with a sandwich or salad.
  • Enjoy a cup of miso soup or kombucha tea.

“Foods that help prevent cancer also help reduce chronic inflammation, and vice-versa,” Maxson says. “So, following these guidelines will ultimately reduce your risk of a variety of chronic diseases, and improve your quality of life.”

If you’re concerned you have chronic inflammation, speak with your doctor.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center