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Diet and Cancer

Karen Alexander, Licensed Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

June 16, 2021

Diet and Cancer Prevention

Only 5–10 % of all cancer cases can be attributed to genetic defects, whereas the remaining 90–95 % have their roots in the environment and lifestyle of an individual. Studies suggest that simple lifestyle changes, such as following a healthy diet, could prevent 30-50% of all cancers.

Additionally, individuals can prevent cancer by engaging in physical activity, staying lean, avoiding smoking, limiting their alcohol intake, limiting excessive sun exposure and their exposure to environmental contaminants; including but are not limited to pesticides, air pollution by carbon particles, tobacco smoke, formaldehyde, benzene, fumes, food additives, nitrates, pesticides, dioxins, cosmetics, among others. 1

Diet and lifestyle impact so much our cancer risk that the American Institute for Cancer Research has estimated that: 2

  • 47 % of colorectal cancer could be prevented by staying lean, avoiding processed meat, exercising and eating healthy
  • 33 % of breast cancer could be prevented if women avoided alcohol, stayed lean and exercised
  • 10 % of advanced prostate cancers could be prevented if men maintained a healthy weight

What can I eat to reduce my cancer risk?

If you google the words “anticancer diet” you will get above 15 million results. The problem is not the lack of information, but how to find evidence-based information. The American Institute for Cancer Research has a team of researchers that translate the science for health professionals and consumers.

There is no single food or nutrient that can reduce the risk of developing cancer. However, it is the overall diet with the synergy of all its components that can really impact one’s cancer risk. Several diets have been attributed to reducing cancer risk or improving cancer treatment outcomes. Overall, healthier individuals following a strict diet should not have a problem. If you are considering changing your diet, consult with a dietician or doctor prior to making any changes to your current diet, especially if you have specific conditions or you are under active cancer treatment. Your body’s needs might be different than the general population.

There are two things you need to pay attention when deciding what anticancer diet to follow:

  1. It has to be sustainable in long term: There is no benefit in following a strict diet for a short period of time if after a few months or years you are back into your old bad habits.
  2. It has to have science behind: Although testimonials are good for sales, you want to follow real science when it comes to your health.

The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends to follow a “whole food plant-based diet minimally processed,”  where 2/3 of your meal from plant-foods and 1/3 from low-fat animal foods. 3

Studies have shown that higher intake of plant-based foods has been associated with a reduced risk of several types of cancer including: 4

  • Head and Neck
  • Esophageal
  • Stomach
  • Lung
  • Pancreatic

A great way to incorporate a more plant-based diet is to remember the acronym G-BOMBS. G-BOMBS represent the six most important cancer-fighting foods that are effective at preventing chronic disease, including cancer, and promoting health and longevity. G-BOMBS stands for 5

  • Greens (Contain substances that protect blood vessels, excellent tool for weight loss, most nutrient-dense of all foods)
  • Beans (Act as an anti-diabetes and weight-loss food, have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar; contain soluble fiber which lowers cholesterol levels; legume intake provides significant protection against oral, larynx, pharynx, stomach and kidney cancers)
  • Onions (Beneficial effects on the cardiovascular and immune systems, anti-diabetic and anti-cancer effects; associated with lower risk of gastric and prostate cancers (detoxifying carcinogens, halt cancer cell growth, block angiogenesis)
  • Mushrooms (Decreased risk of breast, stomach, and colorectal cancers; some types of mushrooms have anti-cancer properties including anti-inflammatory, stimulation of immune system, prevent DNA damage, slow cancer cell growth, cause programmed cancer cell death and inhibit angiogenesis.
  • Berries (Full of antioxidants, high in nutrients and low in sugar; reduce blood pressure, reduce inflammation, prevent DNA damage, inhibit tumor angiogenesis, stimulate body’s own antioxidant enzymes.)
  • Seeds (Healthy fats that can aid in cardiovascular function; aid in weight maintenance and diabetes prevention; rich sources of omega-3 fats

Dr. Scot Ackerman recently spoke on WJXT News4Jax about G-BOMBS and how to incorporate these anti-cancer foods into your everyday life. To watch the full interview with Dr. Ackerman, click here.

5 Do’s and Don’ts

  1. If your plate looks like a rainbow, you are taking good food choices: Phytochemical are good chemicals found in plant-foods that can protect against cancer. Some of these chemicals may protect cells from becoming cancerous, slow cancer cell growth, strengthen immune function, limit the production of cancer-related hormones, fight viruses, work as antioxidants, and have anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. 6
  2. The less processed, the better: Eat foods in their closest form that you can find them in nature. Studies have shown that as more processed is a food, the more risk of developing cancer. For example; it is not the same to eat steamed potatoes as eating potato chips or instant mashed potatoes. 7
  3. Have meatless days: Studies found that vegetarian and vegan diets may reduce cancer risk 8-15%. 8 Vegetarian diets (pesco-vegetarian diets as well as vegan and lacto-ovo vegetarian diets) are linked to a lower risk of cancer compared to diets that include meat and fish more than once a week. 9 Vegan diet reduce overall cancer risk and cancers in women, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets reduce risk of cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, such as colorectal cancer. 10 Higher intake of plant-based foods has been associated with a reduced risk of several types of cancers including head and neck, esophageal, stomach, lung, pancreatic and prostate. 11
  4. Get more fiber: High-fiber foods such as non-starchy vegetables, fruits, legumes (beans, lentils, chickpeas, etc.), and whole grains feed the good gut flora and they have been linked to reduced risk of several cancers including breast and colorectal cancer. 12
  5. Limit red and processed meats: Colorectal cancer risk increases 17% with consumption of 100 g red meat and for every 50 grams consumed daily (about one hot dog) cancer risk increases 16 percent. This includes any lunch meat and bacon.13  Processed meats contain sodium nitrate and nitrite have been linked with the formation of nitrosamines, compounds shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies.
  6. Avoid cooking at high temperatures: The meat cooking method can increase the risk of cancer. 14 Cooking methods involving high heat, like grilling, barbecuing, smoking, frying, boiling, sautéing produce harmful chemicals.
  7. Consider reducing your alcohol intake: Alcohol contributes to 5.6% of all cancer cases. This ranks alcohol as the 3rd leading preventable cause of cancer, after cigarette smoking and excess body weight. 15

The recipe of the week comes via Fork over Knives

Italian-Style Zucchini and Chickpea Sauté


  • 1 onion, chopped (1 cup)
  • 1 large red bell pepper, chopped (1 cup)
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ teaspoon dried thyme
  • 3 medium zucchini, halved lengthwise and cut into ¼-inch slices (4 cups)
  • 1 15-oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained (1½ cups)
  • 1 cup oil-free marinara sauce
  • 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 8 to 10 fresh basil leaves, chopped


  1. Heat an extra-large skillet over medium. Add the first five ingredients (through thyme); cook 10 minutes, stirring often and adding water, 1 to 2 Tbsp. at a time, as needed to prevent sticking.
  2. Add zucchini; cook 10 minutes more or until zucchini is tender. Stir in chickpeas, marinara sauce, and vinegar. Season with salt and black pepper. Heat through. Serve immediately garnished with basil.
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