Cancer Prevention Diet 2

A Cancer Prevention Diet:
Easier and More Delicious
Than You Thought

When it comes to a cancer prevention diet, or “anti-aging” or any other medical hot-button issue, the temptation is to look for and believe that there is a single magic bullet which will take care of the problem. It’s the same temptation that has led doctors and pharmaceutical companies to believe that single prescription drugs are the answer to medical problems with their roots in complex lifestyle choices such as diet. Now holistic medicine proponents are in danger of falling into the same reductionistic trap by promoting single nutritional supplements to cure everything. I’m afraid that sort of approach will never get us where we want to go, no matter how good the single magic product might be. At the time of this writing, the public’s favorite magic bullets for disease prevention are exotic tropical juices, sold for quite a high price by the way, and each claiming to have unique advantages over the other. While these are no doubt excellent antioxidants, I hope you will join me in resisting the belief that any single product will take care of all your health concerns. There are some specific whole foods which have a special place in a cancer prevention diet, but the important principle here is variety, and specifically variety of plant based foods.

While I may emphasize a few specific foods which can be among your strongest allies in a cancer prevention diet, the most important concept is this: it is the overall pattern, mix, and variety of your diet which is the most important food factor in cancer prevention. A large amount of good science links a diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables with decreased cancer risk across the board. Most of what is on your plate at every meal should be from plants, and very colorful ones at that. Darkly pigmented fruits such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are anti-oxidant powerhouses. Colorful vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, red cabbage, dark green leaves like kale, chard, or spring mix for salads are great. And the brassica family of vegetables, well represented by broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, bok choy, and brussel sprouts, are especially important in reducing risks of cancer of the breast, colon, lung and stomach. It’s best to enjoy them fresh and not overcooked. I also encourage people to buy organically grown produce whenever possible, to minimize the body’s exposure to agricultural chemical residue.


I believe from the evidence I have seen that cancer prevention is possible, and that increased vegetable and fruit intake is part of that strategy, but it will take more than “tweaking” our usual dietary habits in America. I have taken dietary histories in my holistic medicine practice from people from all walks of life, and I am impressed at how easy it has become in America for us to eat a disease promoting diet. For those on a budget, the least expensive foods are the least likely to be rich in fresh produce, and for those in a hurry, fast foods eaten on the go are rarely high in vegetables and fruit. If you are serious about a cancer prevention diet, you will need to see food differently than most of our society. And that does not mean seeing food as only something to eat for its health benefit… honestly that seems pretty boring. But if you are willing to stop long enough to cook meals from fresh ingredients, find some favoriterecipes , get to know spices, and take the time to sit down with people you love over really good food, you can put the joy back in eating and save your life at the same time.

But you may be asking, “how many servings per day are enough, and how big is a serving anyway?” I recommend 9 servings of vegetables and fruits (combined) per day. Serving sizes are typically ½ cup of cooked, raw or frozen vegetables and fruit and 1 cup of leafy vegetables. It’s easier than you thought to get to nine servings, because these serving sizes are smaller than we are accustomed to seeing in our oversized serving world of the early 21st century.


Another very important part of your cancer prevention diet has to do with your selection of oils and fats. We all need fat in the diet, and the world nutrition literature is clear that the human organism not only can thrive on a fairly high percentage of fat in foods, but also requires fats and oils to be consumed for optimal health. But are there good and bad fats? In nature, the answer is probably no, it’s more a matter of the proportions in the diet. All of these are necessary to our health in their own way, but the modern Western diet has developed into a pattern by which excesses in certain types of fats and deficiencies of others lead to health problems. The good fats are among the most healthy foods you can eat, and a critical piece of a cancer prevention diet. A dietary approach to fat intake which has gained increasing scientific support as a preventive strategy against chronic disease is to eat more foods containing omega-3’s (fish, flax seed for example) and less food containing omega-6’s (liquid vegetable oils used in cooking, salad dressings and baked products, such as corn oil, peanut oil, soy oil, safflower and sunflower oils). My conclusion after reviewing the data is that you can reduce your risk of cancer by avoiding all trans-fats (margarine, vegetable shortening, and any packaged baked goods with the word “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” on the label), by increasing the use of extra-virgin olive oil in cooking, salad dressings, etc, and by increasing your omega-3 fat intake through oily fish such as salmon or sardines, or taking a fish oil capsule.


Getting daily healthy fats for a cancer prevention diet is easier than you might think. Some quick suggestions applicable 3 meals a day: walnuts on your cereal or oatmeal in the morning. A can of sardines on wheat crackers with salsa for lunch. Wild Alaskan Salmon for dinner. Have fish twice a week. Use extra virgin olive oil as your preferred cooking oil. When the flavor of the olive oil is too much, use expeller pressed organic (non-GMO) canola oil.

I also believe we have enough good science to recommend a low glycemic diet as good for cancer prevention. In a nutshell, this means focusing on getting your carbohydrates from vegetables and whole grains instead of starches and refined grains, focusing the largest part of your daily carbohydrate intake from non-starchy vegetables and fruits.

Why is a low glycemic diet related to a cancer prevention diet? Glycemic load refers to the ability of a specific food to raise the blood sugar, how high and for how long. The hormone which your body calls on to down-regulate those blood sugar spikes is insulin. Insulin is a very powerful hormone, and over time, prolonged elevations in insulin levels (necessary to keep your blood sugar in check) are a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancers. Insulin is a tumor growth promoter when its levels stay on the high side. This is probably one reason why people with type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance) have higher rates of cancer than the general population, and a very important reason why you want to stay with low glycemic foods to avoid frequent spikes in blood sugar (think sweets and flour and starch).

Finally, never believe that a pill, or a single set of nutrient extracts from foods, will be able to convey the same protective benefit to you as the whole foods themselves. Additionally, as I reflect on the superabundance of compounds in edible plants on this planet which protect human health, I cannot help but to find myself in awe and wonder at the wisdom of the created order of things, that nature’s pharmacy is so generous in making a cancer prevention diet available to us. And remember, food is good; it is to be enjoyed and shared with gratitude with people you enjoy, around a relaxed dinner table. The conversation at a healthy meal should not be about the health qualities of the food, but about the delicious tastes and aromas, and the shared life experiences of friends!

to your health,



Robert Pendergrast, MD 

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