Reducing your risk of cancer with food

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D.
Special to the Lake Sun, USA TODAY NETWORK
Creamy Mashed Cauliflower with Melted Butter and Green Onions

Behavior and lifestyle changes can prevent about two out of five cancers in America. Behaviors that contribute to cancer include smoking, excessive alcohol intake, poor diet and lack of physical activity.

Determining links between foods and cancer is challenging. Most people eat and drink a wide variety of food and beverages, making it hard to study people’s diets. Some food substances may increase or decrease your risk of cancer. But how you prepare that food and how much you eat also can play a role. Let’s look at which foods are the most harmful and which are the most helpful in terms of cancer risk.

Red meat and processed meat. There is a strong correlation that eating too much of these meats will increase your risk of colorectal, stomach and bladder cancers. Processed meat is any meat that has been smoked or fermented or has added salt or nitrates to enhance flavor. Examples are bacon, hot dogs, and packaged deli meats. These should be rarely eaten. Consistently eating more than 18 ounces of red meat, beef or pork in a week has been shown to increase cancer risk as well.

Ultra-processed foods. Diets high in packaged foods, which are mostly sugar, oil or fat, have been linked to an increase in cancer. A large study found that for every 10% of a diet made up of ultra-processed food, the risk of cancer increased by 12%. Examples of ultra-processed foods are soda, packaged snacks, instant noodles and other foods that have long lists of unrecognizable ingredients.

Alcohol. There is strong evidence that excessive alcohol intake increases the risk for cancers of the mouth, throat, larynx, liver, esophagus, breast and colorectal. It may be that the chemicals in the alcohol damage DNA or weaken the body’s ability to process or absorb nutrients.

Vegetables. Diets heavy in vegetables have been shown to decrease the risk of cancer. Vegetables are high in antioxidants, which help neutralize harmful free radicals that can cause cancer. They also help decrease inflammation in our bodies and add fiber to help keep optimal gut function.

All vegetables are good, but some are especially beneficial. These include:

Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts

Lycopene: tomatoes, pink grapefruit and watermelon

Carotenoids: carrots, sweet potatoes and other red, orange and yellow vegetables

Allium vegetables: chives, garlic, leeks and onions


Other helpful foods. Whole grains add fiber to your diet, which helps reduce the risk of digestive and colorectal cancer. Polyphenols found in herbs, spices, tea, coffee, chocolate and nuts may also help reduce cancer risk.

There is no evidence that taking any vitamin or supplement will reduce your risk of cancer. Some can actually increase your risk. A high-dosage beta-carotene supplement can increase your risk of lung cancer. High doses of vitamin E may increase the risk of prostate cancer.

A healthful diet isn’t a guarantee that you won’t develop cancer. Genetics, exposure to toxins, weight, sun exposure, smoking, activity levels and other factors also can play a role. But a healthy diet can help reduce your risk of cancer, as well as other illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes.

Horseradish Cheddar Mashed Cauliflower

Serves 4

1 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets

½ cup shredded cheddar cheese

¼ cup sour cream

2 Tbsp prepared horseradish

1 Tbsp butter

½ tsp ground pepper

¼ tsp salt

2 Tbsp chopped fresh chives

Bring 1 inch of water to simmer in a large pot fitted with a steamer basket. Add cauliflower, cover, and cook until tender, about 15-20 minutes.

Remove cauliflower from basket, and drain the water. Return to pot over low heat and mash. Add cheese, sour cream, horseradish, butter, salt and pepper, and mash until smooth. Stir in chives.

Nutrition Information: 148 calories, 10 g fat, 9 g carbs, 7 g protein, 3 g fiber, 317 mg sodium

Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the Cardiopulmonary Rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri.