Eat to Live: Reducing Your Cancer Risk with Plant Foods

Feb 25, 2013

February is Cancer Awareness Month. Today's post is written by Peter Ewens, the President and CEO of Natural Horizons Wellness Centers, based in Fairfax, Virginia. Natural Horizons is an integrative medicine and wellness practice that provides its patients with holistic cancer treatment programs, biological dentistry, pain management therapies and much more.

While cancer deaths have drastically declined since their peak in the early 90’s, the fact remains that it is still one of the top causes of death in the United States. This statistic may be sobering, but the good news is that there are many ways to reduce the risk of getting cancer, from exercising to limiting alcohol consumption, and perhaps one of the best methods: eating a plant-rich diet.

Why Plants?

Unlike red meats, which can increase the risk of colon cancer, plant foods can actually aid in cancer prevention. From broccoli to berries, plant foods are being studied every day, and evidence of their potential cancer-fighting abilities continues to build. So, how do they do it?

Nutrient Density

First, fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, which support our body’s immune system and help keep it strong and healthy. A body that has all the nutrients it needs is much better equipped to fight off disease and keep its systems running in peak form.


Plants also contain substances called phytochemicals. These organic compounds are responsible for plants’ smells, colors, and more. They also are believed to help reduce the risk of cancer.

For example, lycopene is a phytochemical found in tomatoes. Along with giving tomatoes their bright red color, lycopene is also thought to help reduce the risk of prostate cancer. Studies into its efficacy and exact mechanism of action continue, but some theorize that the compound stimulates special, cancer-preventative enzymes in the body.

Low Caloric Density

Plant foods are lower in calories than most processed foods, and eating them can help to maintain a healthy body weight, which is associated with a decreased risk of many cancers.

6 Steps to a More Plant-Rich Diet and Lifestyle

Now that you know a bit more about the potential cancer-preventative benefits of eating a plant-rich diet, here are some ways to incorporate them into your daily routine and to create an overall healthier lifestyle:

  1. Start with a clean slate – If you’re starting a new lifestyle, eliminating temptation can be a huge help. You don’t have to buy a whole new pantry full of food, but begin by getting rid of the worst offenders and replacing them with healthy options that still satisfy your cravings. For example, baked apple chips or baby carrots can provide a nice crunch similar to that of potato chips (just make sure the chips aren’t salted or sweetened).
  2. Plan ahead – Perhaps the biggest downfall of fresh fruits and veggies is that they’re perishable, but you can avoid wilted plants and wasted food by thinking ahead. Make a weekly meal plan and purchase only the fresh ingredients that you need for those meals. If possible, make two small trips to the grocery store each week instead of a single weekly voyage so you can get food that’s fresher.
  3. Figure out fresh versus frozen – Frozen fruits and vegetables are a great way to make sure you always have healthy options on hand. The trick is knowing what to buy: Varieties like corn, lima beans, green peas, and sweet peppers tend to hold up better after being frozen, whereas ones like green beans and asparagus can get mushy and are better fresh. Frozen spinach is a good option for use in casseroles or when making creamed spinach, but not for salads.
  4. Be creative – Not a big vegetable fan? That’s OK! There are lots of ways to incorporate them into your daily diet without having to struggle through a salad. For example, try grating squash or zucchini into casseroles and spaghetti sauces, where you will be less likely to notice the taste. Steamed and mashed cauliflower can be added to mashed potatoes for a punch of nutrients with virtually no effect on texture or taste. Start adding them to your meals in small amounts, and you may find that eventually you do develop a taste for them.
  5. Go meatless – Regular consumption of meat is associated with a higher risk of cancer, so try going meatless one day a week.  You can also decrease portion sizes and make other ingredients the main focus of the meal. For example, instead of eating a steak, add some shrimp to pasta primavera. Rather than eating a full chicken breast, cut it into small pieces and include it in a casserole.
  6. Indulge healthfully – Everyone needs a little treat every now and then, and you can still get your fix without going back to your old eating habits. For example, rather than order delivery pizza, make your own at home so you can add lots of vegetables and control the amounts of salt and cheese. If you’re looking for a sweet snack, melt some dark chocolate and drizzle it onto a banana or apple. Write down these healthy alternatives as you find or create them so that when a craving hits, you already have a plan.

Go Beyond Food

Improving your diet is a great first step for improving your health, but there are many other steps you can take to boost your wellbeing. For example, evidence is quickly growing that volunteering provides health benefits in addition to the obvious social ones. In fact, a report from the U.S. Corporation for National & Community Service states that volunteering can improve both mental and physical health, promote longevity, and lead “to greater life satisfaction and lower rates of depression.”

As the famous saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step,” and the same is true for changing your lifestyle. It may be overwhelming to think about a full overhaul of your eating habits, but by breaking it down into small changes like choosing fruit over chips, you can put yourself on the right path and end up making a huge difference.