Your body runs on food. Foods affect how you feel, how your body operates and your risk for diseases like cancer.
No food or food group can prevent cancer and excluding specific foods won’t eliminate your risk. But eating a diet based on plant foods like vegetables, whole grains, beans and fruit and following some basic guidelines can help you reduce your risk for cancer and several other chronic diseases.
Follow the plant-based diet
Eating plant-based means at least two-thirds of what you eat is plants: vegetables, whole grains and beans. Fruit, nuts and seeds are included. So are plant-based proteins like tofu. The remaining third of your meal is meat, fish or animal products like cheese and eggs. There are several versions of the plant-based diet, including the Mediterranean diet.
Plant-based meals can be tasty and exciting, no matter what type of food you like to eat. Take your favorite meal and see where you can add more whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds.
Feed your body antioxidants
Plant foods are important for your body because they contain antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that protect plants from disease and when you eat them, you benefit too. They help repair your cells and remove toxins you may have absorbed during your daily life, including toxins from pollution, bacteria and viruses, and additives and preservatives in foods. They also have anti-inflammatory properties.
Antioxidants are sometimes called phytochemicals and are in every kind of vegetable and fruit, plus some herbs and spices too. The color of the vegetable or fruit signals the type of phytochemical it includes.
- Green and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts and arugula are high in vitamins A, C and K. They are also high in fiber, sulforaphane and folate.
- Bright red, orange and yellow foods like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, peppers and carrots are high in beta-carotene, lycopene, vitamins A and C, potassium and more.
- Dark purple foods like eggplants, berries, grapes, plums, beets, purple carrots and red cabbage contain a group of antioxidants called anthocyanins among other vitamins and minerals.
- White foods like mushrooms, garlic, cauliflower, onions and artichokes are high in anthoxanthins as well as other vitamins and minerals.
Fill up on fiber
Plant foods like unprocessed vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans also are the best source of fiber. Adding high fiber foods to your diet can help reduce your cancer risk. Here are all the benefits of fiber:
- Feeling full longer. Dietary fiber includes a form of carbohydrate that people can’t digest. The fiber slows the speed at which food and drink leave your stomach. So, you stay full longer after each meal or snack.
- Weight control. Many high-fiber foods are low-calorie and packed with nutrients. That’s good news, since maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important factors in reducing your risk of cancer and other diseases.
- Lower cholesterol. Some fibers help prevent fat and cholesterol absorption, helping you lower your cholesterol over time.
- Stabilized blood sugar levels. Diabetic? Or at risk of becoming diabetic? Fiber can positively influence blood sugar levels by slowing how quickly sugar gets into your blood stream.
- Bowel management. Have digestive problems? Adding fiber to your diet can help protect your intestinal lining and make bowel movements easier or more frequent.
Include lean proteins
A plant-based diet does not mean you must be vegan or vegetarian. A plant-based diet that includes lean animal proteins like chicken and fish, as well as plant proteins, has been proven to reduce your risk for cancer.
Red meats like beef, pork and lamb can be included in moderation. Here are some guidelines for consuming red meat:
- Eat no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week. Each serving should be around three ounces, which is about the size of a regular deck of cards.
- Avoid burning or charring your meat because it creates compounds in the meat that have been linked to cancer. Use slow, low temperature cooking methods like baking or roasting. If you grill your meat, marinate it and finish off cooking in the oven or microwave.
Follow the sugar stoplight
When it comes to sugar and artificial sweeteners, use the sugar stoplight to help balance how much you eat.
- Natural sugars are safe to eat. Any sugar that is naturally occurring in a food gets the green light. That includes sugar in fruit and starchy vegetables, as well as whole or minimally processed carbohydrates like brown rice and whole grain pasta. Sugar in dairy products like milk and cheese is OK, too.
- Added sugar should be eaten in moderation. Foods with added sugar get the yellow light. That includes the cane sugar in your yogurt, the honey or syrup in your granola bar, as well as the agave you might put in a drink. Added sugar can also appear in foods like bread and pasta sauce.
- Refined or processed sugar should be limited. Eat red light foods as little as you can because they contain a lot of processed sugar. One candy bar or piece of cake can contain around 30 grams of added sugar. Eating these foods regularly leads to weight gain and other problems. Sodas and sweetened beverages get the red light, too, even if they use artificial sweeteners.
Be aware of sugar spikes
All carbohydrates you eat are turned to sugar – it’s the main energy source for your body. But for some carbs, this process takes longer, which gives your body more time to deal with the sugar. This is why brown rice, whole wheat pasta and whole wheat bread are healthier for you. The extra fiber slows down digestion, helps you avoid a sugar spike and makes you feel full for longer. The refined white versions will strain your pancreas and likely make you want to eat more.
Simple swaps to avoid sugar spikes include switching from fruit juice to eating whole fruit or switching out sugary jelly for sugar-free peanut butter on your toast.
For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol. Drinking any amount of alcohol increases the risk for several cancers, including oral cancer, throat cancer, colorectal and esophageal cancers, as well as liver and breast cancers.
While no alcohol is best, women who choose to drink should have no more than one drink a day, and men no more than two drinks a day.
Tips for moving toward a plant-based diet
Start slowly – look for progress, not perfection.
Assess your current diet – how much comes from plants? How much comes from animals? How much is from whole foods? How much is processed foods?
You are more likely to stick with changes if they happen in small, simple steps rather than one giant change.
Choose a small first step that is realistic for you and one you can make successfully. Here some ideas:
- Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables you eat. This might be by increasing the percentage of produce on your plate at each meal or the number of servings per day.
- Eat the rainbow daily or weekly to add more color to your diet. If you aim to eat the rainbow, you will automatically increase the amount and variety of fruits and veggies in your diet.
- Snack on plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Snacks from plants is a simple way to move toward a plant-based diet.
- Reduce intake of red and processed meats by choosing fish, seafood or poultry, or going meatless more often. There are many great plant-based protein options such as beans, lentils, peas and tofu. Eat them a few times per week.
- Choose whole grains or other whole food carbohydrates rather than processed carbohydrates at meals. Try spaghetti squash or veggie noodles instead of pasta. Switch to brown rice or quinoa instead of white rice.
- Eat salad as your meal. Top it off with nuts, seeds or beans as a protein source.
- Eat fruit for dessert.
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Cancer Prevention Center
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Your BMI indicates that you are underweight. Talk to your doctor about ways to maintain a healthy weight. No matter what your weight is, eating a plant-based diet and staying physically active can reduce your risk for cancer.
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If you follow professional or collegiate sports, you’ve probably heard at least a few athletes say they needed a B12 injection to boost their energy levels.
But how many different kinds of B vitamins are there, and how do our bodies use them? Are B vitamin supplements safe for cancer patients to take during treatment?
We went to clinical dietitian Juhina Farooki for answers to these questions and more.
What are B vitamins, and how do our bodies use them?
B vitamins are naturally occurring micronutrients that help our bodies convert carbohydrates, fats and protein into glucose, a simple sugar that the body uses for fuel. They’re sometimes called “anti-stress vitamins,” because they boost the body’s immune system during times of strain.
B vitamins play a key role in the nervous system, too, as they’re needed for good brain function. They also help keep the liver, skin, hair, and eyes healthy.
Do our bodies produce B vitamins themselves or must we get them from our diet?
B vitamins occur naturally in a variety of plant- and animal-based foods, but they can also be taken as a nutritional supplement. Some B vitamins are added to “fortified” foods, too, such as enriched flour, pastas, breads, and breakfast cereals.
Are there different types of B vitamins?
Yes. Most are known by their “B name” as well as another title.
- B1 (thiamine)
- B2 (riboflavin)
- B3 (niacin)
- B5 (pantothenic acid)
- B6 (pyridoxine)
- B7 (biotin)
- B9 (folate)
- B12 (cobalamin)
What’s the difference between vitamin B and a vitamin B complex?
Any of the eight different B vitamins can be taken individually, or you can take all or most of them in a variety of combinations. Any given combination of B vitamins in a pill or liquid form is known as a B vitamin complex.
How would you know if you have a vitamin B deficiency?
Most people who are healthy, well-nourished and eating well-balanced meals don’t need a vitamin B supplement. But we might do a blood test if someone is showing any of the following symptoms:
Can you overdose on vitamin B?
It’s possible, but not very likely.
Vitamins come in two different categories: fat-soluble and water-soluble.
- Fat-soluble vitamins are stored in our bodies, so getting too much of them can be dangerous.
- Water-soluble vitamins are circulated in the bloodstream, so any excess is removed by our kidneys and secreted in our urine.
Only the vitamins A, D, E and K are fat-soluble. All the rest are water-soluble. So, while there are upper limits that people should stay below for B vitamins, it’s pretty unusual for anyone to reach them.
Is it safe for cancer patients undergoing treatment to take a vitamin B supplement?
That depends on each person’s particular situation.
Ideally, we’d like for patients to obtain all the B vitamins they need from the foods they eat. But if someone has a history of bariatric surgery, for instance, then thiamin and B12 injections might be beneficial.
This is because B12 is absorbed in the latter part of the small intestine, but the process requires hydrochloric acid from the stomach. Thiamine is absorbed in the small intestine, but often with gastric surgeries, part of the small intestine is bypassed, leading to a potential deficiency.
If someone is not eating enough due to appetite changes, nausea or vomiting, then they might need a supplement.
But some types of B vitamins can be unsafe for certain patients to take, either because they reduce the effectiveness of particular cancer treatments or because they can interact adversely with certain medications. That’s why it’s super important to check with your doctor before taking any kind of nutritional supplement.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
The field of culinary medicine continues to grow as more evidence-based research confirms the important role food plays in our health. The belief is if people learn where their foods come from and how to prepare them in different ways that they enjoy, this will increase their likelihood of eating more nutrient-dense foods at home.
We connected with Margaret Raber, DrPH, assistant professor, Health Disparities Research, and Karla Crawford, clinical program manager, Integrative Health Services, to learn about culinary medicine and how MD Anderson has joined in the movement.
What is culinary medicine?
Raber: Culinary medicine is part of a broader movement called “Food is Medicine,” which emphasizes the need to address access and intake of healthy foods when we are trying to prevent or treat diseases, including cancer. Over the last decade, there’s been greater emphasis on culinary medicine training in public health and medical schools; students are learning nutritional science through coursework and teaching kitchens to better counsel patients. Several institutions across the nation have opened teaching kitchens to give students firsthand experience in preparing nutritious foods.
Crawford: Patient education is another important part of culinary medicine. We teach patients, their families and the community how to prepare nutritious foods. This education takes place through teaching kitchens, virtual classes and community outreach programs, which allow us to teach nutrition principles through fun experiences and practical ways. We hope these experiences will encourage participants to prepare healthier foods at home.
What are the benefits of culinary medicine?
Raber: Culinary medicine can improve lives by helping individuals eat well and explore new foods and cooking techniques. We can help create a diet that caters to an individual’s preferences and teach skills people can integrate into their home food environment. It allows us to stay mindful of cultural differences, how we prepare ingredients to change the nutritional makeup, taste preferences and other things that play a role in whether someone enjoys their food. We want to make sure patients find enjoyment in what they eat. It goes beyond just eating healthy foods.
Why is culinary medicine important?
Crawford: Patients going through cancer treatment may experience side effects, such as a change in taste or appetite, that may impact their diet and intake. Through culinary medicine, we can work with the changes a patient is experiencing. In some instances, we cook together and have them try new foods or a healthier variation of a favorite recipe. Many times, patients are shocked when they enjoy a food that they initially thought would be bland or flavorless. We often hear patients say, “I’ve had more vegetables since partaking in cooking classes than I have had all year.”
Raber: It’s very important that individuals feel empowered to make good diet decisions during cancer treatment, after treatment and even as a preventive measure. But we’ve learned that you cannot just hand out recipes or guidelines to people. My previous research led to the development of the Healthy Cooking Index, which measures the decision variables made during cooking that are relevant to health and cancer prevention. Introducing patients to this way of thinking through experiential learning allows them to enjoy a variety of foods that can provide them with critical nutrients that can help fuel the body, whether they’re healthy individuals, in cancer treatment or no longer in treatment.
What culinary medicine programs does MD Anderson offer for patients and caregivers?
Crawford: At MD Anderson, culinary medicine efforts have been introduced over the years in multiple ways. We have initiatives that help our patients as well as members of the community expand their knowledge of the role their diet choices play in their health, whether from a prevention standpoint or during treatment.
Before the pandemic, the Integrative Medicine Center offered classes in their teaching kitchen where patients, caregivers and staff were taught different ways to prepare foods and introduced to new foods. In the future, we hope to bring a similar experience to patients.
Starting this month, patients and caregivers can attend the virtual Cooking for Optimal Health class through the Integrative Medicine Center. This class is for all patients. Patients who are newly diagnosed or may be transitioning to maintenance therapy will find it very helpful. In this class, the dietitian discusses principles of culinary medicine using the Healthy Cooking Index as a guide. Patients will learn healthy cooking techniques, the importance of a plant-based diet, and the American Institute for Cancer Research dietary guidelines.
How does MD Anderson bring culinary medicine to the broader community?
MD Anderson has a Healthy Living Clinic in our Cancer Prevention Center, and we plan to roll out patient cooking classes soon. In addition, our Be Well Communities™ initiative and Active Living After Cancer program enable MD Anderson to work collaboratively with communities across the Houston area and strategically implement evidence-based strategies to promote health and wellness opportunities, including healthy eating.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.