• Sara

We are what we eat!

Updated: Jun 3

Cancer is the second leading cause of death worldwide, and although our understanding of cancer is greater every day, it continues to be a leading cause of death. To save lives, the promotion of prevention, early detection, treatment, and pain control is needed[1]. It has been shown that lifestyle and dietary measures can help prevent 30 to 40% of all cancers[2].

nutrition and cancer

Many nutritional elements can contribute to elevated cancer risk, such as low nutrient foods like concentrated sugars and refined flour products that impair glucose metabolism, red meat, a low fiber diet, but also an imbalance of omega 3 and omega 6 fats and finally obesity. Conversely, antioxidants such as carotenoids (lycopene, lutein, cryptoxanthin and carotene), vitamins specifically C, D and B-12, folic acid, sulforophane, selenium and chlorophyll, are present abundantly in fruits and vegetables and are considered as protective elements involved in cancer prevention[3]. Here we will list some of the dietary factors that are considered as potential cancer risk but also those that contribute to cancer prevention.

Risk factors dietary elements

  • Elevated calories consumption

Overconsumption of energy is a proven risk factor for cancer. Indeed, a positive correlation between obesity and higher death rates in many types of cancers (esophagus, liver, prostate, breast and ovary, etc.) has been found[4]

On the other side, a restrictive diet, following the Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition (CRON) approach leads to extended average life spans of many animal species (rats, mice, fish, and possibly primates) and a reduction in chronic diseases. In humans, and specifically in Swedish women suffering from anorexia nervosa (lower caloric intake, but not adequate nutrition), a lower incidence of breast cancer was observed[5].

  • Impaired glucose metabolism

High energy, nutrient sparse food, like refined sugar and junk food can lead to severe dysregulation of glucose metabolism a known risk factor for cancer[6]. Studies have found an association between elevated fasting glucose and insulin, larger waist circumference but also diabetes and an increased risk of colorectal, endometrial and pancreatic cancer.

In a cancer-protective diet, food leading to hyperinsulinemia should be avoided and even eliminated.

  • Low Fiber and red meat

Fruits, vegetables and unrefined foods are fiber-rich elements. Controversy, eggs, meat and dairy products contain no fiber. Studies have shown that 5 daily intakes of fibers, can reduce cancer risk, especially among older subjects[7]. Moreover, a significant association was found between processed and red meat and colorectal cancer.

  • Imbalance in the Omega3:6 ratio

omega3 cancer

Omega 3 are fats known to have a protective effect from cancer, while omega 6 are the fats described as cancer-promoting fats. Studies show that a higher ratio of Omega 3 to 6 fats can lead to a lower breast cancer risk. Flax seeds, are considered a great source of omega 3, along with walnut and chi seeds[8].

Preventive dietary elements

  • Fruits and vegetables

Fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes contain a variety of compounds known to suppress tumor growth, such asvitamin C, D-limonene, lutein, folic acid, carotenoids, lycopene, selenium, vitamin E, allium compounds, dithiolthiones, isoflavones, inositol hexaphosphate, flavonoids, saponins, isothiocyanates, indole-32-carbinol, phytosterols and dietary fiber. Moreover, cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are rich in sulforophane, which has anti-cancer properties. Studies show that these compounds have a negative effect on proliferation, and metastasis but also on angiogenesis, and finally on cancer stem cell apoptosis[9]. Moreover, it has been described that using a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lead to a decrease in numerous cancers, such as esophagus, pharynx, stomach, lung, and colon2.

  • Selenium

It is a mineral that has been shown to possess anti-cancer properties and is present in many enzymes involved in antioxidation reactions. It has been shown to enhance the immune system and decrease tumor growth. Brazil nuts (richest source of selenium), whole grains, nutritional yeast and sunflower seeds are considered a good source of Selenium. Studies show a link between selenium and the risk of colorectal, prostate, lung, bladder, skin, esophageal, and gastric cancers[10].

  • Chlorophyll

chlorophyll cancer

Chlorophyll is present in all green plants. Its anti-cancer effect is due to its ability to bind carcinogen from fuel combustion (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), heterocyclic amines (formed when grilling foods) and aflatoxin (a toxin from molds than can lead to liver cancer). The body cannot absorb this complex easily, so it is naturally excreted in feces.

To this unexhaustive list, some enzymes (that can be taken orally) and probiotics (microbiota present in the gut) can also play an important role in cancer prevention.


In conclusion, a healthy lifestyle, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole and unprocessed food can have a beneficial effect not only on cancer but on other chronic diseases too.

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References [1] The Global Cancer Burden, American Cancer society [2] Clinton S,et al;, J Nutr;150(4):663-671 (2020) [3] Donaldson, M.S. Nutr J 3, 19 (2004). [4] Calle EE et al., N Engl J Med, 348: 1625-1638 (2003) [5] Michels KB, et al., Jama, 291: 1226-1230 (2004) [6] Coughlin SS, et al., Am J Epidemiol, 159: 1160-1167 (2004) [7] Slattery ML, et al., Am J Clin Nutr., 79: 274-281 (2004) [8] Medicalnewstoda, articles: 323144 [9] Pistollato F, et al., Food Chem Toxicol 75(0):58-70, (2015) [10] Dennert G,et al., Cochrane Database Syst Rev CD005195 (2011).


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