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Published on August 20, 2019

Can your diet lower your risk of cancer recurrence?

Cancer diet

When I finished cancer treatment, I really looked forward to eating normally again. I was tired of how chemotherapy twisted my taste buds and left me too tired to cook or enjoy a dinner out. My usually healthy appetite had become unpredictable. I hardly knew what foods I liked anymore. And, of course, I was desperate for an eating plan that would ensure I would never get cancer again.

Of course, no single food or diet can cure cancer or prevent it from returning. But research points to ways diet lowers the risk of recurrence or developing new cancers, said Dianna Carpentieri, MS, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at Cape Cod Hospital’s Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center.

Before you dive back into your favorite foods or a new eating pattern, respect where your body is after cancer treatment and take into account any physical issues, such as swallowing difficulties, she said.

“One thing that I make sure, is to really meet the person where they are,” Carpentieri said. “What’s important for all survivors of cancer is being a little patient with your body, and making sure you’re not adding undo stress like, ‘Oh, I should be vegan now.’”

You might also struggle to get your appetite back. If so, Carpentieri recommends exercise, even for 10 or 15 minutes a day to help stimulate appetite. Try to eat smaller, more frequent meals and snacks to avoid early satiety or feeling overwhelmed with the amount of food you think you should eat. Make an extra effort to make eating enjoyable by sharing meals with family and friends. If these strategies don’t work ask your oncologist about prescribing an appetite stimulant.

Feel Good and Reduce the Risk

Once you’re ready to face your food future, she offers these guidelines to feel good and reduce your cancer risk:

  1. Eat more plant-based proteins. Swap plant-based proteins – nuts, seeds, soy and legumes – for the animal proteins including meat, eggs and dairy. If you aren’t ready to remove animal proteins from your diet altogether, than reduce your intake of red meat, which includes: beef, lamb and pork products, Carpentieri said. The World Cancer Research Fund suggests no more than 18 ounces of red meat a week. The naughty list also includes processed meats, like hot dogs and salami, which are loaded with nitrates and salt. Numerous studies show a link between eating red meat and various forms of colon, prostate and other cancers, she said. Recent research says it’s safe for women with estrogen-positive breast cancers to eat soy in moderation and that the isoflavone in soy may actually lower the risk of cancer. It’s not clear, however, if that benefit extends to foods containing processed soy, such as textured vegetable protein, or to soy supplements. Carpentieri suggests sticking to soy in its whole form, such as tofu.
  2. Avoid cooking meat over intense heat. When you broil, pan-fry or grill red meat using high heat, it releases cancer-causing chemicals that increase the risk of colon cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research, a nonprofit that aggregates cancer research. The AICR recommends marinating meat in an acid (lemon juice, vinegar, wine) for at least 30 minutes. This helps to prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), both of which can damage DNA and increase your risk of cancer. You can also pre-cook meat in the oven or microwave to reduce grilling time or grill it over low heat to reduce the amount of char.
  3. Load up on fruits and vegetables. “The more we eat, the better we support our immune system. Fruits and vegetables contain the various phytochemicals that stave off inflammation and free radicals within the body,” Carpentieri said. Free radicals are untethered molecules that can harm cells and DNA, and may contribute to cancer. Stick to fruits and vegetables in their whole form, not as juice or supplements, at least 3 cups of vegetables and 1 to 2 cups of fruit each day, she said. They don’t have to be organic to contain these important nutrients, she said, however if you want to reduce your exposure to pesticides and herbicides, check the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of heavily treated foods (strawberries and spinach, for example). To further maximize your nutrient intake, shop for local produce as it will have been picked at its peak of freshness and nutrient content. .
  4. Go easy on the alcohol. Researchers don’t totally understand why alcohol contributes to cancer but just one drink a day increases the risk of mouth, pharynx and larynx, esophageal and breast cancers, according to the AICR. Two or more drinks increases the risk of colorectal, stomach and liver cancers. The bottom line? The less the better, Carpentieri said. She suggests at least going by the guideline of no more than one drink a night for women and no more than two for men. What counts as a “drink”? Five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits. And keep in mind that women metabolize alcohol more slowly than men and have less water in their bodies, so its destructive qualities are more concentrated and stay in the bloodstream longer, she said.
  5. Focus on overall health, not just weight. Although it is important to strive to maintain a healthy weight in an effort to reduce cancer risk and other diseases, the number on the scale is not the best measure of overall health. It’s just as important to make sure you’re eating a balance of whole protein and fiber-rich foods which include: whole grains, whole fruits, whole vegetables, lean and plant-based proteins, Carpentieri said. Unfortunately achieving a healthy weight can be especially difficult for many cancer patients post-treatment. For example, breast cancer patients are often taking hormone-suppressants that make weight management difficult.

“So many patients experience multiple surgeries, chemotherapy and/or immunotherapy treatments that significantly change their body and cause unwanted weight gain,” Carpentieri said. Instead of just focusing on the scale, concentrate on eating a balanced diet of whole, mostly plant-based foods and move your body daily.

“Exercise is definitely an important piece of cancer-risk reduction or recurrence, as well as risk reduction for many diseases including: heart disease, diabetes, and many more,” she said.