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The Diet That Could Stop Cancer from Spreading

If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, check out what the experts say about why it’s important to pay attention to what you eat

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Hope for cancer survivors

Every year—shortly after National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October—the American Cancer Society reports that roughly another 1.7 million new cancer cases have been diagnosed. That’s a staggering number, but here’s something all cancer patients can be hopeful about: Research suggests that not only can diet help prevent the disease, but there’s also evidence that what you eat can also help keep cancer from spreading or recurring. Here’s what cancer experts have learned about the best dietary approach for cancer survivors. Check out other good-news statistics about cancer.

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Diet matters

In a 2002 study, researchers found that an estimated one-third of all cancer deaths in the United States can be attributed to diet. But conversely, “Good nutrition may reduce the incidence of breast cancer and the risk of breast cancer progression or recurrence,” wrote Natalie Ledesma, RD, in Women’s Health Matters, a publication from the University of California, San Francisco. Research published in Nutrition Reviews found that the foods you eat—and, importantly, the things you avoid—can dramatically reduce the risk of cancer returning. In this review of studies on diet and cancer recurrence, the researchers found that a generally healthy diet could lower future cancer risk by about 25 percent; following a high-sugar, high-fat Western-style diet nearly doubled the risk of return. Alcohol didn’t help either: The more people drank, the higher their risk of recurrence.

Ledesma, an oncology dietitian at the Cancer Resource Center at UCSF’s Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, identifies two major types of diets as optimal: a plant-based diet and the Mediterranean diet. Many experts agree that some of the same eating habits that help prevent cancer can also help halt its progression and stop it from recurring in patients.

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Don’t focus on nutrients

Just remember that studying human nutrition is tricky, and experts caution that the science is still inconclusive about which specific nutrients or foods are involved when it comes to fighting cancer—if any. “It’s really more about looking at the whole diet rather than any specific nutrient,” says Mia Gaudet, PhD, scientific director of epidemiology research for the American Cancer Society. “Most nutrients aren’t available naturally in isolation. Eating a variety of foods will get you the widest range of nutrients possible.” Find out the 30 simple steps to take to cut your cancer risk

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Fruits and veggies are vital

You may know that carotenoids are the compounds that give carrots and other orange foods their color. They’re also potent antioxidants that have strong anticancer properties. You’ll find them in lots of fruits and veggies (sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, apricots, pumpkin), which may help explain why plant-based diets tend to be linked to lower rates of cancer. “In studies, people who ate the most vegetables had the lowest risk of estrogen-receptor-negative breast cancer,” says Susan Brown, RN, senior director of education and patient support at Susan G. Komen. Just note that the research suggests that veggies have a stronger effect than fruits, so focus your efforts on orange and yellow vegetables for best results. Also, consider eating some other types of produce that help keep cancer at bay.

Wooden table full of fiber-rich whole foods, perfect for a balanced dietnehophoto/Shutterstock

Whole grains can help

The popularity of low-carb, high-protein diets has made grains an endangered species in the American diet. The fear surrounding gluten hasn’t helped. Whole grains are an important source of cancer-fighting nutrients, including fiber.

“There’s a lot of evidence that fiber fights cancer,” says Robert Segal, MD, founder of Medical Offices of Manhattan. “In populations that have high-fiber diets, colon, stomach, and breast cancers are a lot less common.” And they’re less likely to reoccur when people get plenty from their diet, he says.

It may have something to do with the way fiber alters the effect of hormones like estrogen—which is linked to some types of cancer. Fiber can also bind with certain carcinogenic compounds and help move them out of the body. Most Americans get only a fraction of the 40 grams of fiber they need daily, averaging between 10 and 20 grams a day. Whole grains like oats, brown rice, and quinoa are a great way to reach that quota.

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Beans do a body good

Beans are another great source of dietary fiber—plus, they’re rich in antioxidants and protein, which makes them a healthy, low-fat alternative to meat. Research has found that people who eat a lot of meat have a higher risk of developing cancer; subbing in plant-based protein sources like beans may help slash your risk. One 2005 study found that women whose diets included eating beans and lentils at least twice a week had a 24 percent lower risk of breast cancer than women who ate them less than once a month. Check out 15 things cancer doctors do to avoid getting cancer.

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Olive oil is a healthy fat

Eating too much fat can boost the presence of hormones that elevate some cancer risks, such as breast, Dr. Segal warns. But recent research suggests that healthier types of fats, specifically the monounsaturated kind found in olive oil and other foods, may have a slight protective effect against a variety of cancers. It’s no secret that olives are a staple of Mediterranean cooking, which may be why those countries have cancer rates significantly lower than those in the United States.

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Soy could slash your risk

There has been some debate over soy’s role in cancer prevention and recurrence, mostly because it contains compounds known as phytoestrogens, which mimic human hormones that seem to raise risk. If any risk exists—and there’s plenty of argument against that idea—it’s from concentrated soy proteins (in supplements) or heavily processed soy fillers that turn up in junk food, according to the Mayo Clinic. There is some research suggesting that diets rich in whole soy foods may have a protective effect—particularly against breast cancer. Look for the least processed forms of soy—edamame, tofu, soy milk, miso. Now read these 37 science-backed ways to cut your cancer risk.