Cancer is a scary disease that many of us dread — and for good reason. In 2022, the American Cancer Society reports that the U.S. alone had roughly 1.9 million new cancer cases which resulted in approximately 609,360 deaths from cancer for the year.
Whether you have cancer and are working to fight it, or if you simply want to prevent cancer from developing by reducing your risk, examining your diet and lifestyle is a great place to start.
In this article, we dive into the topic of cancer and how it relates to a whole-food plant-based diet based on research. We cover everything you need to know, including key risk factors for cancer, the overlap of your nutritional wellness and cancer, and foods to both favor and avoid to reduce your risk.
There are good reasons to explore whole food plant-based meals as a method of cancer prevention.
Cancer by the Numbers
Know Your Risk Before diving into the relationship between plant-based eating and cancer, let’s examine the research:
- By 2030, it is estimated that there will be 21.7 million cases of cancer around the world, a major increase from the 14.1 million cases reported in 2012. (Source: World Cancer Research Fund)
- Roughly 42% of cancer cases and 45% of cancer deaths in the U.S. are linked to lifestyle factors, such as excess weight and poor diet. The top risk factors for cancer death include cigarette smoking, excess body weight, alcohol, UV radiation, and physical inactivity. (Source: American Institute for Cancer Research)
- An estimated one in two men and one in three women are at risk of developing cancer in their lifetime. For men, the type of cancer a man is most at risk of developing is prostate cancer. For women, the type of cancer a woman is most at risk of developing is breast cancer. (Source: American Cancer Society)
As far as your personal risk of developing cancer, this risk is highly dependent on several key risk factors, some of which you can control and others that you cannot.
These risk factors include:
- Obesity: Obesity can heighten your risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD), which can, in turn, heighten your risk of cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that obesity is also associated with a heightened risk of breast, colon, rectum, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreatic, and gallbladder cancers. Unless you have a medical condition that causes you to be overweight, obesity can generally be treated with diet, exercise, and general lifestyle changes.
- Age & Genetic Factors: As we age, our risk of developing cancer heightens. Likewise, some people are genetically predisposed to certain types of cancer. For age-related cancer, the risk starts to steadily increase around age 35 to 40. Genetic cancer risk factors are dependent on your family history, requiring you to be familiar with this history to properly assess your risk.
- Cancer-Causing Substances: Many substances — both edible and non-edible — have been associated with the development of cancer. On the edible side, the two main culprits are alcohol and tobacco, which can pose a tremendous cancer risk to your mouth, throat, and lungs. Non-edible carcinogen substances can include environmental carcinogens, chemicals, smoke, and other toxins. Some cancer-causing substances are easy to avoid, while others can be difficult to avoid depending on your living situation and natural environment.
- Diet & Lifestyle: While more research is needed into the exact interactions between your dietary and lifestyle choices with your risk of cancer, health experts can say with some certainty that a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle can heighten your cancer risk. Comparatively, eating well-balanced and nutritious meals, as well as getting regular exercise, can help safeguard your body against the development of cancer, especially as you age.
Can a Plant-Based Diet Help with Cancer Treatment or Prevention?
To put it bluntly, eating a plant-based diet alone is not enough to prevent cancer entirely.
However, a whole food plant-based diet can be a crucial part of building a healthy lifestyle that helps to reduce your overall risk of cancer. Obesity plays a significant role in the development of cancer, making it all the more important to eat balanced meals and maintain a healthy weight.WFPB diet that can help lower your risk of cancer:
Antioxidants: Plant-based diets are often rich in fruits and vegetables — both of which can provide an enormous source of various antioxidants. The NCI reports that antioxidants help to neutralize free radicals in the body that can harm your cells and lead to cancer development. Moreover, antioxidants can help boost your immune system function, which is vital for both preventing disease and recovering from the side effects of cancer treatments.
As for the treatment of cancer, we do not currently have enough concrete evidence to support the idea that a plant-based diet can, in any way, cure cancer. However, a plant-based diet can certainly boost your immune system, which helps deal with the side effects of treatment and the recovery process.
Does Sugar Feed Cancer?
Sugar consumption and its relation to cancer development has long been a hot topic of debate.
This complex relationship between sugar and cancer has stumped many researchers over the years, with many asserting that the connection between the two exists, however loose it may be.
According to the American Institute for Cancer Research:
“There is a connection between sugar and cancer risk, however, but it’s more indirect than many realize. Eating a lot of high-sugar foods may mean more calories in your diet than you need, which eventually leads to excess body fat.”
While many health gurus may lead you to believe that sugar “feeds” cancer cells, the reality of the matter is much more complex.
Cancer cells do consume sugar (glucose) as an energy source, but so do normal cells. The primary difference is that cancer cells tend to consume sugar at a higher rate to help support their rapid cycle of growth and division. Even still, this is not enough to prove that sugar causes cancer, only that cancer cells rely on the same energy source as normal cells.
What can be more accurately said is that sugar — especially high quantities of sugar found in processed goods — can contribute to weight gain and eventually lead to obesity, thus heightening a person’s overall risk of developing cancer.
However, overconsumption of sugar has more than just the risk of obesity and obesity-related cancer. This makes it paramount to be highly mindful of your sugar consumption and stay within the daily recommended limits named by the American Heart Association (between 6 to 9 teaspoons, or roughly 25 to 35 grams of sugar).
The American Heart Association further highlights sugary beverages as the leading source of added sugars, typically accounting for around 47% of all added sugars in a person’s daily diet.
These beverages include:
- Soft drinks
- Fruit drinks
- Sports and energy drinks
- Coffee and/or tea
What Foods Starve Cancer?
Just as saying “sugar feeds cancer” is an oversimplification of the actual biological and metabolic processes occurring, so is it an oversimplification to state that any specific foods can “starve” cancer.
No single food or diet has been proven by researchers to provide a cure for cancer. However, certain foods do have anti-cancer properties that make them great options to add to your daily menu.
What is arguably most important is understanding the vital nature of a nutritionally balanced diet.
Let’s now cover some of the best foods for improving your overall health and reducing your risk of developing cancer or other diseases:
Fruits & Veggies: As we have already discussed, nutrients like antioxidants and dietary fiber play major roles in regulating your body and neutralizing free radicals. Some of the best fruits and veggies that can lower your risk factor while also boosting your immune health include leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, citrus, and berries.
Whole Grains: Whole grains are one of the most nutritionally-dense plant-based foods you can find, especially in the form of oats. Like fruits and veggies, whole grains help to satiate you and keep you feeling full throughout the day, minimizing your urges to snack and overeat. As a result, many prioritize whole grains in their plant-based diets to help maintain a healthy weight.
Legumes: Legumes — aka, beans — are rich in a variety of different nutrients. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research, legumes (also called pulses) contain dietary fiber, resistance starch, and phenolic compounds — all of which require more research but are generally thought to be associated with lower cancer risk.
- Nuts & Seeds: Nuts and seeds have many excellent health benefits but are most well-known for their role in promoting better heart and cardiovascular health. The American Institute for Cancer Research currently calls for more research and evidence to support the claim that nuts and seeds can help reduce cancer risk. However, the effects of nuts and seeds on your heart health are better researched, with the American Heart Association stating that 3 to 4 small handfuls of nuts and seeds per week can help reduce your risk of heart disease.
As you may have noticed, the key similarity between all of these foods is that they can be eaten as whole foods, rather than purchased as processed goods.
Plant-based diets can often be misconstrued as highly expensive due to the mainstream popularity of the wellness industry. With the list above, you can see how that standard fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds are an affordable way to build a balanced and health-filled diet.
Does a Plant-Based Diet Make a Difference if You Already Have Cancer?
To reiterate an earlier point, there is not currently enough research or evidence to support any single food as an effective cure or treatment for cancer. Despite this, a plant-based diet rich in fruits, veggies, and grains provides your immune system and other bodily functions with the support necessary to maintain strength and vitality throughout your cancer treatments.
If you are interested in taking a more alternative route to Western medicine, the best thing you can do is consult with your professional medical team.
What Foods are Linked to Cancer?
Unlike foods that prevent and treat cancer, we can say with greater certainty that some foods are linked to the development rather than the prevention of cancer.
Here are four foods linked to cancer to watch out for and eat in moderation:
Red Meats: Red and processed meats have been a subject of hot debate in health and wellness communities for years. In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified processed meats (sausage, hot dogs, corned beef, canned meat, etc.) as a carcinogen to humans. There is less research and information available surrounding red meat, though health experts often associate red meat with a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
Highly Processed Foods: Highly processed goods like fast food, pre-packaged baked goods, and candy put you at a higher risk of obesity — a health condition that is a risk factor for 13 types of cancer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that these 13 cancers make up 40% of all diagnosed cancers in the U.S. each year. Although many factors can increase your risk of cancer, the CDC states that avoiding tobacco and maintaining a healthy weight are vital for lowering your risk of developing cancer.
Sugary Products: Like the processed foods discussed above, sugar is not a carcinogen and, therefore, poses no direct threat when it comes to cancer risk. However, overconsumption of sugar is not recommended as it can lead to obesity, which is a major risk factor for cancer. Though it may not directly cause cancer, eating too much sugar can also produce unwanted side effects like constipation, headaches, gas, and bloating.
- Alcohol: According to the CDC, alcohol can raise your risk of several types of cancer, including mouth, throat, larynx (voice box), esophagus, colon, rectum, and liver cancers. This risk is posed due to the presence of a chemical called acetaldehyde that can damage your DNA and prevent the body from naturally repairing that damage. Alcohol is also thought to increase the risk of breast cancer in women. If you are going to drink alcohol, the CDC recommends two or fewer drinks per day for men and one or fewer drinks per day for women.
3 Key Changes to Expect After Switching to a Whole-Food Plant-Based Diet
When switching to a plant-based diet, you are likely to experience several bodily changes within the first few weeks. Most of these changes are perfectly normal, though if any changes feel concerning to you, it is always a good idea to double-check with your doctor or medical team.
Here are three common changes to expect when switching to a WFPB diet:
- Irregular Bowel Movements: More than likely, switching to a plant-based diet will drastically increase the amount of daily dietary fiber you consume. This can temporarily impact your bowel movements, as well as cause gas as your body adjusts. If these issues do not resolve themselves within one to two weeks, consult with your doctor.
- Immediate Weight Loss: If you are switching from a diet high in processed foods and sugars, switching to a Whole Food Plant Based diet for weight loss will likely result in a sudden weight loss (typically less than 20 lbs., though it can depend on your starting weight and other factors). This weight loss is primarily a loss of water weight that may have built up and caused bloating due to your intake of sugary and highly processed goods.
- Skin Changes: Any changes to your diet are bound to have an impact on your skin. Initially, you may break out as your body adjusts. However, over time, eating a WFPB diet should result in clearer skin and healthier hair thanks to the many extra nutrients this diet can provide.
Key Takeaways: Get Plant-Based Meals Delivered Straight to Your Door
Whether you are facing a cancer diagnosis head-on or simply striving to reduce your cancer risk, switching to a whole food, plant-based diet can be highly advantageous for your health.
To simplify this transition, create your own custom meal boxes with Whole Harvest. These meal boxes are 100% whole foods and plant-based, and they can be shipped almost anywhere in the U.S.
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