Health & Fitness

Eat a rainbow of foods to reduce risk of cancer

A healthy diet matters: Dr. Mike Cusnir and oncology dietitian Sandy Sotnick show off some of the foods at Mount Sinai Medical Center that you can eat that will help fight cancer and other chronic diseases.
A healthy diet matters: Dr. Mike Cusnir and oncology dietitian Sandy Sotnick show off some of the foods at Mount Sinai Medical Center that you can eat that will help fight cancer and other chronic diseases. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Broccoli. Quinoa. Blueberries. These simple foods have become the rock stars on our plate. But experts tell us that, as good as these foods are, the recipe for better health includes eating a rainbow of foods.

“No one particular food is a cure for cancer,” said dietitian Alice Pereira, a specialist in oncology nutrition at Baptist Health South Florida. “It’s about all the foods you eat — and your whole lifestyle.”

In fact, changing your diet is about changing your lifestyle, said Dr. Mike Cusnir, a Mount Sinai Medical Center oncologist with an expertise in integrative medicine, which focuses on a patient’s total well-being.

“By the end of this year, obesity by itself will be the No. 1 cause of preventable cancer,” surpassing tobacco, he said.

An estimated one out of every three cancer deaths in the United States is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition and/or physical inactivity, according to the American Cancer Society.

Cusnir urges patients to substitute a “prudent,” plant-based diet in place of a typical American menu, too often loaded with preservatives, sugar and fats.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends that only one-third of your plate be filled with protein — the other two-thirds should be filled with vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.

The goal, said Cynthia Wigutow, an oncology nutrition specialist at Memorial Cancer Institute, is to “eat from a rainbow, add variety. Eat more plant-based foods, which contain antioxidants, fiber and phytochemicals, found in fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds.”

At the same time, you’ll want to limit sodium, processed foods, fats, red meats (pork, lamb, veal and beef) and sugar, she said.

“When new dietary guidelines come out, there will be some possible big changes in cancer prevention,” said Lesley Klein, a dietician and medical oncology nutrition specialist at the University of Miami’s Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Society.

Current guidelines call for a variety of protein, including lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts. Proposed changes include limiting red meat — beef, pork, veal and lamb — to twice a month, she said.

Changes would also limit sugar intake. “We know that added sugar is a source of excess calories” and inflammation, Klein said.

Experts aren’t telling you to never eat sweets — in fact, dark chocolate is packed with healthy chemicals like flavonoids and theobromine. Just watch your portions. Same goes for nuts. A little is good, but don’t pig out on a can in one day.

Smart shopping — reading labels and buying fresh food — also helps forge good eating habits, Cusnir said.

Foods with a lot of preservatives and long shelf life “may end up staying in our body forever,” he said, urging consumers to read labels carefully. “If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t eat it. Would your grandmother recognize it?”

He also advised against substituting a bunch of vitamins and supplements for real food. “People want to consume maybe 50 to 60 substances a day in an effort to prevent cancer,” Cusnir said. “There’s one substance that’s available, and we call it broccoli.”

Here are 10 foods the experts said could help reduce the risks of cancer and other chronic diseases:

1. Beans: Kidney, pinto and black beans, and yellow split peas and red lentils are on the list of legumes touted as top sources of antioxidants. Beans are also high in fiber and contain folate, which can help reduce the risk of pancreatic cancer, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

2. Berries: Blueberries, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries have powerful antioxidants to help fight cancer, said Mount Sinai’s Cusnir. Berries are packed with Vitamin C and Vitamin K and are lower in sugar than most fruits.

3. Broccoli: The cruciferous vegetable is a wonderful source of antioxidants, said Baptist’s Pereira. Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower are other cruciferous choices loaded with dietary fiber, folate, vitamin C and beta-carotene. Other power green veggies include collard greens, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, turnips, bok choy, and Chinese cabbage, arugula, and watercress, said University of Miami’s Klein.

4. Garlic: The pungent bulb may reduce the risk of several types of cancer, primarily of the stomach, colon, bladder and prostate. You’ll get garlic’s best disease-fighting properties by chopping, crushing or steaming the cloves.

5. Grapes: The skin of red grapes is a rich source of an antioxidant called resveratrol, also found in wine, grape juice, eggplant, purple onions, plums and other anti-inflammatory purple foods, plus dark chocolate.

6. Green Tea: Drink up! The tea contains antioxidants called catechins, which may help prevent cancer. The National Cancer Institute reports that while studies have been inconsistent, some have linked the tea to reduced risks of cancers of the colon, breast, ovary, prostate and lung.

7. Quinoa: It “stands out from some of the other whole grains because of the low glycemic index, better for a diabetic, and higher protein content, than most other grains,” said Klein. Other whole grains include barley, millet, oats and farro, which are packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals and other natural compounds that can curb cancer risk, especially of colon and other gastrointestinal cancer. The important thing is to choose whole grains instead of white bread or pasta, said Memorial’s Wigutow.

8. Sardines: One of several types of fatty fish that are high in protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. Other good choices are wild salmon, herring, Spanish mackerel, albacore tuna, anchovies and trout, Pereira said.

9. Turmeric: The orange-hued spice, found in aromatic Indian curries, is anti-inflammatory, “an unbelievable preventive measure,” Cusnir said. Buy it fresh or powdered and use it in soups, salads or stir-fries. The combination of turmeric with black pepper may also reduce the risk of cancer, said Wigutow. Other spices gaining attention: ginger, cinnamon, rosemary and saffron.

10. Walnuts: The spotlight is on the nut, with its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits. Walnuts, almonds, peanuts and other nuts are a source of protein and omega-3. Klein suggests nuts as a between-meal snack. She makes her own trail mix with pieces from two whole walnuts, six almonds and six pistachios in a snack-size bag (It makes the treat look bigger).

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