Inflammation and cancer: Why your diet is important
What's the link between inflammation and cancer? Prolonged inflammation can damage your body's healthy cells and increase your cancer risk. But you can take steps to reduce inflammation by making these healthy lifestyle choices.
What does inflammation have to do with cancer?
“Prolonged inflammation can damage your body’s healthy cells and tissue, and weaken your immune system,” says Karla Crawford, a senior clinical dietitian in 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 symptoms. The good news is you can reduce chronic inflammation and lower your cancer risks.
“It starts with your diet,” Crawford says. An anti-inflammatory diet also can help you avoid diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
Add more plant foods to your diet
Plant foods are the only foods that contain anti-inflammatory phytonutrients. Plus, they are high in the antioxidants and fiber your body needs to reduce your cancer risk. Recent research suggests that fiber also may 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 non-starchy vegetables, whole grains and fruit. Fill the remaining one-third or less with lean protein or plant-based protein.
Limit processed foods
“Choosing whole, fresh foods and doing your own prep maximizes nutrients and phytonutrients,” Crawford 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 unhealthy 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
Eating the right dietary fats is important for reducing inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids can help protect your body from chronic inflammation. On the other hand, omega-6 fatty acids increase inflammation.
“Many people are trying to include more omega-3 fatty acids in their diet. But, they’re still eating too much omega-6 fatty acids,” Crawford 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, like salmon, tuna, halibut, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, pecans and avocado.
- Use oils high in omega-3, such as olive oil and canola oil.
- Avoid or limit oils high in omega-6, such as corn, sunflower, peanut and soybean oils.
- 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 risk. Try to limit red meat to 18 oz. or less a week .
Crawfofd suggests replacing red meat with these high-protein foods to help reduce chronic inflammation.
- Choose animal proteins like skinless chicken, turkey and fish.
- Replace animal proteins with plant proteins, like 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, also known as probiotics, can 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 or 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 reduce your cancer risk also help reduce chronic inflammation, and vice-versa,” Crawford 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.