Although scientific studies seem conflicting on what you should and shouldn't eat for cancer prevention, there is one constant: A diet rich in fruits and vegetables is good for you. There is no such thing as a cancer prevention diet, but there are things you can eat to reduce your personal risk of developing colon cancer, even if you have a strong family history of the disease.
What is a Healthy Diet?
The term "healthy diet" is subjective. To some people, it may mean ordering a smaller diet drink or adding a spinach salad to their fried chicken. The fact is, a healthy diet is a well-balanced diet that incorporates more than food selections -– the cooking and preservation methods may impact your cancer risk, too.
Building Your Plate
Regardless of what meal you are about to consume (breakfast, lunch or dinner), your plate should be heavy on the fruits and vegetables, light on the animal proteins and fats. The American Cancer Society's guidelines suggest eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables (that's combined servings, not five fruits and five vegetables) daily to decrease your risk of cancer. If you fill your plate full of fruits or vegetables, you will have less room for the fats and animal proteins.
Altering Lifestyle to Mirror the Healthy Diet
If you smoke or drink alcohol, your body may require more nutrients than a non-smoker or non-drinker. Studies show that smoking can deplete your body of vitamin C, which is a potent antioxidant. Antioxidants help reduce your colon cancer risk by sweeping out the free radicals (pollution, cellular waste) in your body. Heavy alcohol use can deplete the amount of folate (one of the B vitamins) that you absorb from healthy foods. Folate deficiency has been linked to an increased instance of colon cancer.
Eat the Real Deal
You can find almost every micronutrient (think minerals, vitamins) available in a pill form nowadays. However, it's not just the micronutrients in healthy foods that matter. It’s the synergy of nutrients, phytochemicals and antioxidants -– basically, the food as a whole -- that helps fight cancer cells.
A number of scientific studies and trials have demonstrated that taking large quantities of supplements, such as beta carotene or calcium, in an effort to combat cancer risk can be counterproductive. Some of these trials, especially those containing beta carotene, showed an increased risk of developing cancer while taking these man-made supplements.
The safest and most economic way to get all of your antioxidants, phytochemicals and nutrients is by eating the whole, natural, plant-based food -– largely unchanged from when it was harvested. Wash the vegetables and fruits thoroughly, and enjoy the skins that are edible as well –- this is where the fiber is stashed.
Mix it Up
Get the most benefit out of your diet by incorporating a healthy variety of foods. Try to avoid eating the same fruits, vegetables and grains repeatedly. Each type (and color) of healthy food has its own micronutrients that are specific to that food group.
- Green leafy vegetables, such as kale, spinach and broccoli, are full of natural lutein, vitamin E, beta carotene and calcium
- Orange fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, cantaloupes and pumpkin, contain natural beta carotene
- Tomatoes, watermelon and pink grapefruit contain lycopene
- Almonds, mangoes and safflower oils contain natural vitamin E
- Fish, oranges, cereals, poultry and many other foods contain vitamin C
- Rice, wheat and Brazil nuts are a healthy source of selenium
You cannot overdose on micronutrients, antioxidants and minerals by eating them in their natural food state. Try adding one or two fruits or vegetables to your meals at a time, making healthy foods a permanent part of your diet.
When you cook meat over high temperatures (think broiling, grilling, and frying), compounds are released into the meat. The two compounds released are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heterocyclic amines (HCAs). They are known carcinogens and have been linked to an increased incidence of colon and rectal cancers. PAHs can also be found in cured or smoked foods, such as ham or bacon.
You don't have to toss your backyard grill, but it may be healthier to slow-cook foods at lower temperatures, stew, or slowly roast animal proteins.
American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society's Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.
American Cancer Society. (n.d.). Common Questions About Diet and Cancer. ACS Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention. Accessed March 10, 2012.
National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Antioxidants and Cancer Prevention: Fact Sheet. Accessed March 9, 2012.
Sinha, R., Peters, U., Cross, A.J., et al. (September, 2011). Meat Cooking Methods and Preseveration and Risk for Colorectal Adenoma. Cancer Research, 65; 8034. Accessed November 2, 2011.
Willet, W.C. (2010). Fruits, Vegetables, and Cancer Prevention: Turmoil in the Produce Section. Journal of the National Cancer Institute: 102 (8). Accessed March 12, 2012.