Does what you eat really make a difference in your risk for cancer? Many experts agree that making better choices about what you put on your plate is one way to protect against the cell changes, or mutations, that can lead to cancer. Although some risks for cancer are out of your control, choosing a healthy diet is one way to take action.


“A healthy diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables may help prevent some types of cancer,” said Kirtan D. Nautiyal, M.D., board-certified hematologist-oncologist at Houston Methodist Oncology Partners at Sugar Land. “Plant-based foods contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that can work together to offer some protection against cancer.”


Your Diet and Cancer Risk

Antioxidants are important nutrients, such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and vitamins A, C and E. These healthy nutrients are abundant in fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains. Antioxidants help protect body cells from damage caused by unstable molecules, called free radicals. “Free radicals can damage DNA and may play a role in the development of cancer,” said Nautiyal. “We’re learning more about the potential for antioxidants to work against free radicals, and ways to get those benefits through a healthy diet,” Nautiyal explained.


More research is needed to understand the links between diet and cancer, but there’s some evidence to suggest that antioxidants and other nutrients in foods may fight cancer by:


  • Destroying free radicals that damage DNA, which can lead to cancer
  • Helping to eliminate carcinogens (cancer-causing substances)
  • Blocking the activation of carcinogens


Sources of Antioxidants

Here’s where you can find antioxidants in foods:


  • Vitamin A: liver, dairy products, eggs and fish liver oil. It’s also converted from carotenoids, found in dark red, green and yellow vegetables
  • Vitamin C: citrus fruits, tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, leafy vegetables, strawberries and potatoes
  • Vitamin D: milk, cold-water fish, egg yolks and liver
  • Vitamin E: avocado, coconut or olive oils, sweet potatoes, avocados, nuts, sunflower seeds and soybeans
  • Allyl sulfides: garlic, onions, shallots, leeks, chives and scallions
  • Carotenoids: apricots, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, mangoes, carrots, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, corn and cantaloupe
  • Catechins: green tea and berries
  • Flavonoids: parsley, carrots, citrus fruits, broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, soybeans and berries
  • Folate: avocados, bananas, orange juice, cold cereal, asparagus, green, leafy vegetables, dried beans, peas and yeast
  • Lycopene: cooked tomato products, watermelon and pink grapefruit


Foods to Know

Nautiyal recommends eating at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day. “Choose a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, with a goal to fill two-thirds of your plate with plant-based foods,” Nautiyal added.


Here are some cancer-fighting foods you may want to add to your shopping cart:


Berries — Fruits like strawberries and blueberries are loaded with antioxidants, which have cancer-fighting properties.


Tomatoes — Tomatoes are rich in lycopene, a powerful plant compound that may protect against prostate cancer.


Whole grains — Whole grains can help reduce your risk of colon cancer. Be sure to check ingredient labels on breads and other grains and look for the words “100% whole grain.”


Red-orange fruits and vegetables — Foods, such as butternut squash and sweet potatoes, are rich in beta-carotene, which acts as an antioxidant to help protect cells from damage.


Coffee — Your morning cup of java contains a variety of plant compounds that may be protective for some cancers.


Dark green, leafy vegetables — Kale, spinach, romaine lettuce and other green, leafy vegetables are excellent sources of fiber, lutein and flavonoids. These substances may help protect against mouth, pharynx and larynx cancers.


Green tea — Laboratory studies have suggested that green tea may help slow the development of colon, liver, breast and prostate cancers.


Foods to Limit


Grilled and red meats — Red meat has been linked to colorectal and other cancers. Grilling meat over high heat can additionally form cancer-causing agents. Instead, opt for grilled vegetables, which do not create carcinogens when exposed to high heat.