Popular Diets: Do They Prevent Cancer?

MD Anderson Experts Share Nutrition Insight

MD Anderson News Release 04/11/2011

Not all diet plans help reduce a person’s chances of developing cancer, say experts at The University of MD Anderson Cancer Center. Nutrition experts from MD Anderson separate the good from the bad among popular diets.

“Losing weight can help lower your chances for cancer if you’re overweight or obese,” said Daxaben Amin, a senior clinical dietitian in MD Anderson’s Department of Clinical Nutrition. “But beware: not just any weight-loss plan will give your body the nutrients it needs to fight off diseases like cancer.”

Good nutrition is not a fast fix

“Diets that make our ‘good list’ encourage long-term change,” Amin said. “They also give you a variety of options from all food groups.”

Mediterranean Diet
The Mediterranean-style diet makes the ‘good’ list because it encourages people to make a life-long commitment to good nutrition.

This diet also meets many of the dietary guidelines used for preventing cancer and heart disease. These include:

  • Making fruits, vegetables, nuts and other plant-based foods a big part of every meal
  • Choosing healthy fats, like olive and canola oils, instead of butter
  • Flavoring foods with herbs and spices instead of salt
  • Limiting red meat and alcohol intake
  • Eating fish and poultry at least twice a week

The Whole-Body Approach
This type of diet focuses on eating six to seven small meals each day, instead of the standard three large meals. It makes the ‘good’ list because it offers the cancer prevention benefits below:

  • Adding fruits, vegetables and whole grains into at least half of your daily meals
  • Encouraging eating lean protein
  • Limiting foods high in fat
  • Including daily physical activity

Crash diets lead to crash endings

“Diet plans that encourage short-term change usually don’t provide the nutrients your body needs on a daily basis,” Amin said. “These diets make our ‘bad’ list.”

Gluten is a protein found in most whole grain foods, like wheat, rye, barley and oats. Gluten-free diets are becoming a popular trend. When people go gluten-free, they stop eating foods containing whole grains. But, unless someone has celiac disease, he or she shouldn’t go gluten-free.

Here’s why: whole grains are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals. They protect the cells from damage that may lead to cancer.

“Don’t follow diet plans that tell you to completely ‘cut the carbs,’” Amin said.

According to Amin, people should limit their carbohydrates to maintain a healthy weight. But, completely cutting out carbohydrates also cuts out the body’s primary energy source.

Even worse: people deprive their bodies of some important cancer-fighting carbohydrates — vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.

“Instead of going carb-free, choose your carbohydrates wisely,” Amin said. “Pick whole grains rather than cakes, cookies and other foods made with processed or refined grains and sugars.”

Moderation is the secret to success

Maintaining a healthy weight requires a life-long commitment. And, the secret to long-term success is moderation.

“Keep your pantry stocked with a variety of cancer-fighting foods found in MD Anderson’s cancer prevention grocery list at www.mdanderson.org/focused,” Amin said.