According to the American Cancer Society External Site, more than 4 in 10 of all cancer cases are preventable. Lifestyle factors such as avoiding tobacco, protecting skin from sun damage and getting regular exercise are crucial. Eating foods that fight disease also offers some serious protection.
“When it comes to nutrition, the key to disease prevention is a diverse, plant-forward diet that's loaded with whole, unprocessed foods,” says Dana Lemberg, a registered dietitian and well-being consultant at Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield. “In other words, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.”
These plant-based foods contain phytochemicals, or phytonutrients, which experts believe can slow or stop the processes that start cancer or support its growth.
“Phyto means plant,” says Lemberg. “There are thousands of these nutrients found in plant-based foods, and their benefits vary by color and type of food. Phytonutrients are anti-inflammatory, support gut health and keep the heart healthy, all while strengthening the immune system.”
Eating different plant-based foods also aids your mental health, according to Lemberg. “We know that nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods play a key role in the growth of ‘good’ gut bacteria. In fact, most of the body’s supply of serotonin, a natural mood stabilizer, is produced by gut bacteria. “So, when you eat nutrient-dense foods, you boost your mental and physical health.”
The New American Plate
The New American Plate reflects the latest research that supports fighting disease with food. Developed by the American Institute for Cancer, the New American Plate features a variety of plant-based foods External Site that are high in fiber, nutrients and phytochemicals that help keep you in good health and protect against cancer.
The goal is to have vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans make up 2/3 (or more) of each meal. Animal protein (poultry, fish, unprocessed lean meats and dairy) make up 1/3 (or less) of the plate.
Add these ten foods that fight cancer and other diseases to your plate
"No single food can protect you from disease. Variety is key," says Lemberg. As with other vitamins and minerals, evidence shows that phytochemicals are more easily absorbed by the body when consumed as whole foods, instead of supplements.
Add these anti-inflammatory, disease-fighting foods to your grocery list and your plate.
Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and Bok choy have high levels of vitamin A, vitamin C and folic acid. There is evidence that a phytochemical compound known as sulforaphane External Site in cruciferous vegetables is found to be effective in preventing and treating various cancers.
Walnuts, almonds and other nuts are high in fiber, protein and other nutrients. Walnuts contain ellagic acid, a phytochemical that may decrease cancer cell growth, protect brain function and lower cholesterol levels. According to some studies, snacking on an ounce of nuts per day External Site (the size of a golf ball) cuts cancer risk by 15 percent.
Blueberries and other types of berries
Eating blueberries may help reduce risk factors for heart disease and diabetes, and they contain phytochemicals that may help stop or slow breast cancer tumors External Site from growing or spreading.
Red fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, watermelon and grapefruit contain the phytochemical known as lycopene, which is linked to heart health and protection from certain types of cancers.
Spinach and other dark leafy greens like romaine and kale are high in carotenoids and the B vitamin folate, both of which may help guard against DNA damage.
Add this recipe to your weekly meal plan
Want a quick and easy recipe that'll help you add spinach (and anti-inflammatory berries) to your weekly meal plan? Give this one a try today!
Carrots, squash and other yellow-orange fruits and vegetables are rich in carotenoids, which control abnormal cell growth and strengthen the immune system.
Brown rice and other whole grains like whole-wheat bread, quinoa and bulgur are rich in insoluble fiber. Eating three ounces of whole grains daily may reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by about 17 percent External Site.
Edamame and other soy foods such as tofu and tempeh are rich in isoflavones, a group of phytochemicals that may reduce the risk of heart disease and several cancers.
Kidney beans, along with other legumes, beans, peas and lentils are rich in fiber, and offer protection from heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and inflammation.
Avocados are packed with phytonutrients, plus they are high in fiber, healthy fats, folate and magnesium. One long-term study, published in 2022, found that eating at least two servings of avocado per week is linked to a lower risk of heart disease External Site. (A serving equals half an avocado or one-half cup, cubed.)
Want even more ideas of foods to eat to prevent disease? Check out these foods that soothe inflammation in the body.