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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cancer Prevention Center
Body Mass Index (BMI) is a tool to help you determine if you are a healthy weight. Fill out the fields below to get your BMI.
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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.
Your BMI is in the normal range. If you have questions or concerns about your BMI or maintaining a healthy weight, talk to your doctor. No matter what your weight is, eating a plant-based diet and staying physically active can reduce your risk for cancer.
Your BMI is in the overweight range. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. You can take steps to maintain a healthy weight.
Your BMI is in the obese range. Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. You can take steps to maintain a healthy weight.
Many eating plans focus on changing the amount of carbohydrate, fat or protein in your diet.
That’s because manipulating how much of them you eat can have a big impact on your body.
“Macronutrients are the nutritive components of food that the body needs for energy and to maintain the body’s structure and systems,” says MD Anderson Wellness Dietitian Lindsey Wohlford.
No healthy diet should exclude or seriously restrict any macronutrient. Here is how much of each you should eat as part of a healthy diet, and the best sources.
Carbohydrates – or carbs – are the body’s primary fuel. They provide energy for your muscles and the central nervous system during movement and exercise.
Wohlford says 45-65% of calories per day should come from carbohydrates. The amount depends on an individual’s health goals and medical conditions.