Healthy Living: Diet and Cancer

Following a year like no other, Comprehensive Cancer Centers felt it was important to touch on the topic of diet to ensure a better, healthier 2021. While lockdowns, quarantines and societal pauses during COVID-19 shifting dietary habits in a positive direction, for many the stress of the pandemic led to more unhealthy eating.

According to a recent Atkins study, 33 percent of people have said their eating habits have become healthier amid COVID-19, whereas 20 percent said their habits have been less healthy. Processed snacks have made a resurgence and, as an example, sodium-packed canned soup sales have skyrocketed over the previous years.

“In the realm of cancer prevention and treatment, let’s be crystal clear: Your diet is a critical factor,” said Matthew W. Schwartz, a radiation oncologist at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada. “According to the American Cancer Society, more than 600,000 Americans die each year from cancer and of these deaths, approximately 16 percent are related to bad eating habits, a lack of physical activity and/or being overweight.”

According to Dr. Schwartz, being overweight or obese raises a person’s risk of getting one or more of 13 different types of cancer.

Zooming in on specific cancer types, and as examples, excess body weight is a strong risk factor for colorectal, liver and pancreatic cancers (among others), the regular intake of processed meats can increase the risk for non-cardia gastric cancer and alcohol increases the risk for both pre- and post-menopausal breast cancer.

These examples only touch the tip of the iceberg in terms of specific scenarios. In the realm of risk-factors or dietary regimens following a cancer diagnosis, it’s always best to discuss a tailored game plan with your Comprehensive Cancer Centers oncologist.

But, for those looking to stay one step ahead of a prospective diagnosis or adhere to a safe dietary regimen post-diagnosis, there are certainly some best practices.

Build Healthy Habits to Reduce Cancer Risks

In the cancer world, a healthy weight is generally defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 25. So, whether you have nailed that figure on the head, are well below or above, there are some general recommendations to help you and feel better along the way.

First and foremost, for healthy eating start with superfoods. This includes grapes, blueberries, green leafy vegetables, salmon and acai berries are among the foods that are high in antioxidants and considered cancer superfoods. Why are they superfoods, you may ask? These foods have a tendency to boost the immune system and fight free radicals, or potentially cancer-causing molecules.

“While you may want to prioritize superfoods, you’ll want to steer clear of foods with refined sugars and/or trans-fat, which is high in bad cholesterol, increases inflammation and lowers good cholesterol within the body that fights a number of diseases,” said Dr. Schwartz.

Food you will want to consume in moderation include, but are not limited to, sweetened sodas, frozen pizza and cooking ingredients spanning shortening, oil and margarine.

A final and local preventative tip: Hydrate! Water and liquids are essential to good health, particularly in our desert environment. It is generally recommended to drink approximately eight 8-ounce glasses of water every day.

For those courageously battling cancer, calories are critical. Many patients will experience weight loss during or following a treatment regimen. To maintain or increase body weight, they must increase their caloric intake on a daily basis. As part of that intake, it is advised to stick to lean foods that are high in protein, such as legumes, eggs, poultry and fish. Lean protein can help resist further infections, sustain immune systems and repair damaged body tissue.

Additionally, according to the National Cancer Institute, cancer patients that are prone to infections should take special care in the way they handle and prepare food. Among the NCI’s best practices are scrubbing all raw fruits and vegetables with a brush and water before consumption, putting leftovers in the refrigerator upon finishing a meal and soaking foods (like berries) that may not be easily scrubbed and rinsing them before eating.

As for some things to limit in the dietary realm, consuming an excess amount of alcohol is one of them. Alcohol has been linked to a higher risk of several cancer types, including mouth, throat, liver, breast and colon, among others. While we advise against drinking alcohol in excess, we do understand that everything in moderation is key.

When it comes to supplements, Dr. Schwartz urges people not to see them as an end all be all for good health.

“Many people think they need several vitamin supplements to achieve the right daily nutritional balance when in reality, vitamin-specific supplements can contain upwards of 10,000 percent of a nutrient’s recommended daily value, which can actually counteract the helpful effects of radiation, among other detrimental reactions,” said Dr. Schwartz. “As opposed to loading up on a specific vitamin such as C, D or Magnesium), a daily multivitamin typically offers the happy medium.”

Perhaps equally as important and adjacent to a healthy diet is exercise.

The American Cancer Society recommends that adults get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate activity per week, 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous activity throughout the week, or a combination of the two. With the widespread emergence of Fitbit, Apple Watch and fitness-centric devices, ensuring you get the right amount of exercise and limit sedentary behavior has been made easier and, in many instances, quite fun.

In closing, the mantra of “diet and exercise are important” has been around for quite some time. We’ll continue to get new data on specific foods and habits, but that general sentiment remains the same. Particularly amid a global pandemic, cancer certainly hasn’t paused, and it’s never been more important to stay proactive and stay healthy.

Comprehensive Cancer Centers Can Help

Physicians at Comprehensive Cancer Centers provide a variety of treatment options for cancer, blood disorders, breast health conditions and pulmonary disease. To schedule an appointment with the team at Comprehensive, call 702-952-3350.


The content is this post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.