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Food and cancer

What you eat may make a difference

Karen Miller
Food and cancer
PHOTO: Adobe Stock

It may be hard to see a link between what you eat and cancer. Hillary Wright, a nutritionist with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (DFCI) sums it up in just one word – phytochemicals.

Hillary Wright, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. PHOTO: DANA-FARBER CANCER INSTITUTE

Hillary Wright, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. PHOTO: DANA-FARBER CANCER INSTITUTE

Phytochemicals are naturally-occurring chemicals that give plant foods their color, scent and flavor. But more than that, they’re essential for good health. When you eat fruits, veggies, whole grains and legumes, such as kidney beans, a silent war is being waged in your body to help reduce the risk of cancer. Phytochemicals strengthen the immune system and reduce inflammation. They attack free radicals that can damage DNA, and even help with DNA repair. They block substances we eat from becoming carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents.

Plant-based foods contain vitamins, minerals and fiber, Wright explained. Fiber does double duty. “They feed healthy bacteria in the digestive tract,” she said. Bacteria get a bad rap. They’re the culprits behind pneumonia and a host of other illnesses, but there are good ones as well. There is growing research to suggest that these good bacteria in the gut may help control weight, boost immunity and even help prevent life-threatening diseases, including heart disease and cancer.

But in order to get that fiber from whole grains, you have to eat the whole grain — literally. Refined grains, such as white rice, remove the outer bran layer which contains the fiber and the germ which is rich in nutrients. The results tells the tale. A serving of white rice contains a mere 0.6 grams of fiber, while brown rice has more than five times that amount.

New American Plate

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) has developed an approach to get you on the right track. They have designed a New American Plate. It’s not a complex system of counting calories, fats or carbohydrates. Rather, they call it a “fresh way of looking at what you eat every day.” It’s simple math. Divide your plate into thirds. Two-thirds or even more should be plant foods. The other third, or preferably less, can be meat.


New American Plate: The American Institute for Cancer Research has designed a New American Plate. Aim for meals made up of two-thirds or more of fruits, veggies and whole grains, and one-third or less of animal protein. ILLUSTRATION: J. Storin

Red meat — beef, lamb, veal, goat and pork — is fast growing out of favor with health professionals. Although it provides protein and several B Vitamins, its consumption is associated with an increased risk of cancer mortality. “Try to limit consumption to 12 ounces a week,” Wright advised. To give an idea of that amount, a deck of cards is about the size of three ounces. When choosing red meat, select ones that are less fatty or end in “loin,” she explained. Top loin, round roast and flank are preferable choices. Better still opt for poultry or fish.

The attitude towards processed meat, however, is more rigid. Processed meats have been treated by smoking, salting, curing or any process to enhance flavor or improve preservation. Examples are cold cuts, bacon, ham, sausage and hot dogs. That enhancement comes with a price. Nitrates, which are classified as probable carcinogens, are used as preservatives. According to the AICR, any amount of processed meat eaten regularly increases the risk of colon and stomach cancers.

The World Health Organization takes an even stronger stance and has classified processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen — the same category as tobacco smoking and asbestos. Research suggests that consuming 50 grams of processed meat a day, which is equivalent to just one hot dog, would raise the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent over a lifetime. Eating larger quantities raises cancer risk even more. The occasional hot dog at a ball game is fine, explained Wright, but should not be a regular part of one’s diet.

Ties to obesity

The problem is that an unhealthy diet tends to go hand-in-hand with obesity, which on its own can cause 13 different types of cancer. That’s largely because obesity is linked with type 2 diabetes and insulin resistance. A person who is insulin-resistant does not effectively use insulin secreted by the pancreas. In response, the pancreas releases even more insulin. Here’s the problem. Insulin is a growth hormone. It encourages the growth of cells — including abnormal cells. Insulin overload is therefore associated with the risk of colon cancer, and even its recurrence. Researchers at DFCI found that patients with the highest dietary insulin load had twice the risk of colon cancer recurrence and death in comparison with those with the lowest insulin load.

A simple approach

Advising people to delete a food they like can often backfire. Wright takes an opposite approach. Instead she recommends what to add. For instance, one day a week, add seafood. Add fruit to breakfast. Add veggies to lunch and dinner. Snack on nuts — but not too much. Just an ounce serving, which is about the amount that covers a 3×3 sticky note.

Don’t get hung up on exact foods to eat. Choose ones of varying colors. If you don’t like red apples, strawberries or cherries will do. If you’re not a lover of kale, perhaps lettuce is more your fancy. “All plant foods have something interesting to offer,” she explained.

Wright said there is always room for the occasional sweets she calls “calories for fun” as long as they are in small quantities and paired with a healthy plant-based diet. “We endorse the 80/20 approach to eating,” she explained. “It’s OK if you eat healthy 80 percent of the time.”



Classification of meats

(It’s not necessarily the color)

Red Meats

  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Veal
  • Goat
  • Lamb
  • Horse


White Meats

  • Poultry
  • Fish


Processed Meats

These meats have been preserved by smoking, salting or curing. Check for nitrates in the ingredients.

  • Bacon
  • Cold cuts
  • Sausage
  • Pepperoni
  • Ham
  • Corned beef
  • Hot dogs
  • Jerky