How to Choose Foods That Support Cancer Recovery (and Avoid Those That Don't)

How to Choose Foods That Support Cancer Recovery (and Avoid Those That Don't)

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 1/18/22

The foods you put into your body have a profound effect on how well it handles the stressors of being alive. Nutrition science is considered a complementary therapy within the world of oncology, because a thoughtful, intentional diet can help support your body through treatment and into recovery. On the flip side, a diet that includes harmful or toxic foods can work against your treatment progress. It’s important to note that, as far as science knows, diet can’t independently cure cancer—but it can support recovery. Learning what to eat and knowing what to avoid are equally important, so let’s investigate some best practices for creating an optimized cancer-recovery diet. 
How dietary choices can affect oncology outcomes 
By studying the variations in cancer patterns among different populations, researchers have observed that there is a clear link between the foods people do and don’t eat and their risk of developing cancer. While there is much research still to be done and exact mechanisms aren’t yet clear, the scientific, nutritional, and oncology communities do agree on a few key points:
  • Weight health is important for reducing cancer risk, fighting existing cancer, and promoting remission.
  • Carcinogenic elements, which can be found in many processed foods, promote cancer.
  • A diet high in a variety of vegetables and fruits provides the body with many antioxidants, which are chemicals that stabilize cells and oppose compounds called free radicals that react with oxygen and are considered risky for cancer.
  • Vegetables and fruits also provide the body with a full spectrum of micronutrients, which help to keep the tissues of the body functioning well, which in turn makes the body less vulnerable to cancer or better able to fight it.
  • Fiber can reduce the risk of some GI system cancers.  
 Foods that support cancer recovery
Antioxidants and micronutrients are important, and plants are good—but let’s get even more specific than that. While any and all fruits and vegetables are good choices for a cancer-fighting diet, you can further optimize even within that framework. Eating a varied profile of produce is important because each plant you eat contains particular compounds called phytochemicals that may help gird your body against cancer. “Eat the rainbow” is the way nutritionists frame this recommendation, meaning to include fruits and veggies in every color. Here are some top-shelf picks for your cancer-free diet:
Foods that don’t
Some foods have carcinogenic properties. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies some foods as “carcinogenic to humans" or "probably carcinogenic to humans," and while it’s a good idea for everyone to steer clear of the foods on this list, it’s a must for anyone who is fighting or recovering from cancer. The list includes:
  • Processed meats (hot dogs, ham, deli meats, sausages, canned meats, etc.) are specifically connected to stomach and colorectal cancers.
  • Red meat (all mammal meat, including beef, pork, lamb, and goat) is implicated in colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.
  • Alcohol is connected to cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, bowel, breast, and liver.
  • Soda and fast food are inextricably linked to obesity, which in turn is a risk factor for a number of cancers. Avoiding these nutritionally void items is an important choice for overall good health. 
 To your health!
The important takeaway here is that while there is no magic pill (or vegetable) that can cure cancer, there are dietary choices that can impact your treatment outcomes and longevity. Following a food plan that keeps your weight at a healthy level is critical, and beyond that it’s a matter of doing more of what you know is good for you and less of what you know is not. 
Because food serves many purposes—it is pleasure, connection, and culture as well as fuel and medicine—it’s important to remember that there is a way to adapt a cancer-fighting diet to your tastes and preferences. As you begin to look at where you can shift your nutrition into high cancer-fighting gear, remember that it’s okay to make changes incrementally, and that any change is better than no change. Here’s to many tasty and health promoting meals ahead!

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