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Can Food Fight Cancer?

The Facts About Cancer-Fighting Foods

Many lists identify cancer-fighting foods, but no single food group can prevent or cure cancer. However, certain foods associated with a balanced diet can also strengthen your immune system and help you maintain a healthy body weight, which can be primary factors in protecting against cancer.

Colleen DeBoer, MS, RD, LDN, CDE, and Edye Wagner, MBA, RD, LDN, CDE, both clinical dietitians at Northwestern Medicine Lake Forest Hospital, answer our top questions about cancer-fighting foods.

What does the phrase “cancer-fighting foods” mean?

Foods that may reduce the risk for developing cancer. These foods may contain phytochemicals that protect cells against damage from harmful compounds that are produced by the body and can be found in our food and environment.

What are the dangers of calling food cancer-fighting?

There is a wide variety of cancer-fighting food lists on the internet. While these foods are very healthy, other foods are pivotal to maintaining a healthy and balanced diet. To avoid missing out on other essential nutrients, it is important that one does not focus solely on a cancer-fighting food list.

What is the connection between diet and cancer?

Eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy weight can significantly reduce one’s risk for developing cancer. If already diagnosed with cancer, continuing a healthy lifestyle can positively support treatment and maintenance. Those who are in treatment and having difficulty eating are at higher risk for malnutrition, medication intolerance and treatment disruption.

What is the connection between diet and a strong immune system?

Good nutrition supports a strong immune system, which is the foundation of good health and essential for fighting off disease and infection. There are many claims out there that say specific foods will help boost the immune system on its own. However, it is most important that one eats a variety of healthful foods that are full of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. All of these nutrients work together to keep the immune system working properly. Exercise and adequate sleep are also a vital part of keeping our immunity strong.

What benefits or nutrients do the following common cancer-fighting foods contain?

Eating a variety of these foods in conjunction with other nutritious foods will help ensure that we are getting adequate nutrients. All of the foods listed are high in antioxidants, which protect the body, and possess anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Broccoli is a strong source of vitamin C, potassium, fiber, magnesium, beta carotene (vitamin A) and folate.
  • Dark leafy greens provide vitamin K, fiber, folate and carotenoids.
  • Tomatoes offer vitamin C, vitamin A, potassium and lycopene.
  • Blueberries are a source of vitamin C as well as fiber, vitamin K and high levels of antioxidants.
  • Walnuts contain polyphenols (phytochemicals that have antioxidant properties) and omega-3 fatty acids; they also have anti-inflammatory effects.
  • Garlic is an allium vegetable that studies show may have anti-cancer effects that can protect against stomach, colorectal, prostate and bladder cancers.
  • Turmeric has the main active ingredient curcumin, which has a strong anti-inflammatory effect and is an antioxidant.

What would you recommend to someone looking for cancer-fighting foods?

No single food or food group alone can ward off or fight cancer alone. There is no “anti-cancer diet.” It is best to eat a healthy and nutrient-dense, plant-based diet including fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds. Include low-fat dairy and lean proteins moderately, and eat whole grains. Limit red meats and processed meats. Eating a well-balanced diet and being active is also key to maintaining a healthy weight, which takes a primary role in protecting against cancer.