Diet Is Key: The Foods You Need to Eat Your Way to Cancer Protection

Diet and exercise play a big role in health, especially when it comes to cancer, Katrina Claghorn says.

Two of the best ways to potentially decrease risk of developing cancer are maintaining a healthy diet and exercise regimen. Katrina Claghorn, a registered dietician with a specialization in oncology at the Abramson Cancer Center in Pennsylvania, knows this well as she has helped patients with cancer adjust their diet to better help them while undergoing treatment. In addition, her nutrition advice can be helpful for people trying to avoid another cancer diagnosis or for those who hope to never have to experience cancer at all.

At the 14th “Focus on Melanoma” conference in Philadelphia, Claghorn told a group of hundreds of cancer survivors the best way to be healthy. She suggested maintaining a healthy weight, exercising at least 30 minutes a day, avoiding sugary drinks, eating more plant foods, consuming less saturated fats and processed meats, as well as limiting alcohol, salty and processed food intake. Her advice is based on guidelines from The American Institute of Cancer Research, which also advises against supplements, preferring that people get vitamins and minerals from food instead.

“Vitamins are not the panacea we are led to believe,” said Claghorn. “There are some, like vitamin D, where there’s a benefit. I also feel that it’s really important if you’re receiving treatments that you have all your vitamins, minerals and herbs listed because we are finding some interesting interactions.”

Vitamins thought to specifically benefit melanoma include beta-carotene, selenium and retinol, which can all be consumed through foods people eat. In addition to vitamins, Claghorn advised patients to eat anywhere from seven to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day. To make it easier, she suggested having two servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables with every meal. While she said organic plants are ultimately healthier, Claghorn does not require her patients to eat solely organic foods.

“The benefit from eating plant foods, organic or conventional, far outweighs the benefit of pesticide exposure,” Claghorn explained. “If you look up tables of risk factors, the risk from the chemicals is little compared to compounding a bad diet with not enough plant foods.”

Furthermore, Claghorn spoke of how many people avoid sugar, thinking it is the “enemy” of their diet. Rather, she explained, sugar is important because it breaks down into glucose and feeds every cell of the body. However, people do need to keep watch over simple sugars because too much consumption of these can have a negative effect on the body.

“When you eat simple sugars, you are going to release a lot of insulin which breaks down that glucose and goes right into your system,” revealed Claghorn. “Your energy level is going to spike and you’re going to have a corresponding surge of insulin to gobble up that sugar. What we found is that high levels of insulin promote growth factor which can be a tumor reporter. The goal is to maintain your blood sugars, so you do that by eating a healthy diet and that includes fiber, proteins and fats to keep the blood sugar stable.”

Anyone looking to maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle should adopt the Mediterranean diet, shared Claghorn. This diet is high in an assortment of vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, olive oil, fish, little bits of meat, saturated fats and a broad array of grains.

However, she did remind her audience that just because you eat a healthy diet and exercise, cancer is not necessarily within an individual’s control.

“What you ate last year did not cause you cancer,” Claghorn said. “It is what you ate 20 years ago that is more likely. It could even be when you were in utero. Cancer is a long, protractive process increment — normal cells becoming cancer cells. There are these stages in between with different lifestyle factors and nutrients can interrupt that progression. The majority of these bioactive compounds are from plant foods, so that is why we keep pushing plant foods.”