What foods reduce the risk of cancer the most?
— Ronald (Last name unknown)
In terms of overall cancer risk, it is pretty clear that diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood, legumes, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices appear to have a more protective effect than those high in red meat and dairy products.
FYI: many people — nutritionists included — often forget the power of consistent intakes of herbs and spices, all of which are loaded with phytonutrients and antioxidants.
That is not to say, of course, that cancer can be prevented simply by eating healthy, since other factors like stress, pollution, and genetics play a prominent role as well.
Also, I am not stating that meat or dairy cause cancer. As I have explained in previous posts, part of the dilemma with nutrition research lies in determining if a certain diet increases cancer risk because of what it is high in or because of what it offers little of.
What is absolutely obvious, though, is that phytonutrients and biochemical compounds (like flavonoids and antioxidants) play crucial roles in cancer risk reduction, and diets low in plant foods offer much lower amounts of these compounds.
I consider the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research two top-notch sources for information regarding nutrition and cancer. Here are some of their conclusions based on reviews of thousands of large-scale long-term clinical studies:
- Non-starchy vegetables are most helpful in reducing risk of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, and stomach cancers
- Allium vegetables (garlic, onions, scallions, leeks, etc.) have been found to be most effective against stomach cancers
- There is also substantial evidence of garlic having a protective effect against colorectal cancer
- Fruits (this includes avocados!) are implicated in risk-reduction of mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, lung, and stomach cancers
- Nuts and seeds have a protective effect against prostate cancer
As you may suspect, one rather frustrating issue — at least for me — with large-scale nutrition research studies (the ones that receive significant funding and often make significant discoveries) is that, understandably, they tend to focus on commonly-consumed foods. It makes sense; after all, it’s most helpeful to determine what effect mainstream dietary patterns have on health, since those literally affect tens of millions of individuals.
However, this means that a lot of wonderful, but not as commonly consumed, foods chock-full of nutrition (think quinoa, maca, ginger, cumin, wild rice, goji berries, tempeh, kale, hemp seeds, etc.) are barely investigated. Heck, even sweet potatoes have largely been ignored.
It’s clear these foods have health-promoting properties and offer plenty of nutrition, but I wish there were more clinical studies looking at their effect on health.
In conclusion, though, you can never go wrong with whole, minimally processed foods.
Keep in mind my “dartboard” visual:
- The center circle is for foods you want to eat on a daily basis. This circle should be mainly made up of minimally processed plant-based foods.
- The second outer circle is for foods that can be enjoyed four or five times a month.
- The third outer circle is for foods that are best consumed no more than once or twice a month
PS: One of my absolute biggest pet-peeves is rankings of healthy foods. I consider articles or television segments which state that an apple is healthier than an orange, which in turn is healthier than a banana a complete joke. The fact that a fruit has 10 percent more vitamin C than another does not make it superior (because, chances are, that other fruit contains unique phytonutrients).