Food can be used to help fortify your body against cancer, a Mass General nutritionist says.

While cancer can be an overwhelming topic, there are things we can do—like make simple food swaps—to help fend against the disease. It is my humble opinion that a rare steak with red wine is one of life’s great pleasures, but regular participation in this sort of delight may not do you many favors when it comes to cancer.

Fortunately, food can also be used in a positive way to help fortify your body. So read on to learn what — and how much — you should eat to aid in prevention.

Reduce Your Reds

Research suggests substituting proteins like fish, poultry, nuts and legumes for red meat helps reduce mortality risk from cancer. Despite being named “the other white meat” pork, along with beef and lamb, is considered of the red variety and all types should be limited to fewer than 18 ounces a week. For most people, this translates to a maximum intake of red meat three or four times weekly, if the portion is roughly the size of the palm of your hand.

The Two-Thirds Rule

So what can you eat more of to reduce your risk? First, let’s start with your plate.

For maximum cancer-fighting power, fill at least two-thirds of your plate with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Most Americans don’t meet the recommended guidelines for these foods, so if you are looking for a place to focus, your plate is it. There are also specific plant-based foods with protective chemicals that have been cited in cancer research, as noted below. Including them more regularly in your diet may offer additional protection.

Unfortunately, when dining out you may consume more than you think. A pork chop will consume about fifty percent of your weekly allotment, while a New York Strip at a steakhouse will devour most (over two-thirds) of your quota. Even a hamburger will typically consume at least one-third of the red meat you should have for the week, so try to include fish or plant-based proteins, like beans, at other meals for balance.

As for that glass of red wine? Alcohol in general should be limited to two drinks a day for men and one for women. Keep in mind that one gin martini or Manhattan-type cocktail is closer to two drinks. In kind, hefty brews, like Imperials or Double IPAs, also contain roughly twice the alcohol (closer to 10% alcohol by volume) compared to regular beer.

Foods that Fend Off Cancer

Whole Grains
Whole grains are a great source of fiber, which may help foster beneficial types of bacteria in your colon that are thought to aid in cancer prevention. Other protective compounds in whole grains may affect cell signaling and gene expression linked to cancer, also helping to reduce the disease’s occurrence.

The good news: whole grains expand well beyond the recent quinoa trend. Whole wheat is the most common whole grain in the United States, but lesser-known forms also exist in our food supply. They range from bulgur and farro to freekeh and spelt. There are also gluten-free whole grains including millet, brown rice, buckwheat and teff. Your morning oatmeal? That’s a whole grain too. (Check out this whole wheat carbonara pasta recipe, or this parmesan millet side dish for inspiration.)

In laboratory studies, protective plant chemicals found in dried beans and lentils have slowed the development of cancer. This may come, at least in part, from their ability to alter cell growth. Other compounds may help initiate the self-destruction of cancerous cells. Research suggests certain chemicals in legumes may help decrease chronic inflammation, which can be a cancer risk factor, as well.  (Looking to increase your intake? Try this black bean burger.)

Leafy Greens
Spinach, kale, leaf lettuce, mustard greens, collard greens and Swiss chard have a wide range of protective plant chemicals called carotenoids. Carotenoids are thought to work by attacking cancer-causing compounds in the body before they can do harm.

Studies show people who eat more fruit generally have a lower risk of cancer. So don’t let a little natural sugar stop you from employing fruit as a snack.

Some laboratory research has found the carotenoids in dark green leafy vegetables can inhibit the growth of certain types of cancer, including breast and skin cancer. No need to forgo the fat with your greens, either. Adding a little olive oil or a similar plant-based oil or avocado increases your body’s absorption of these protective compounds.

Grapes and Berries
Grapes contain resveratrol, especially in the skins of red grapes. In laboratory studies, resveratrol has prevented the kind of damage known to trigger the cancer process. (While it is true red wine also contains this compound, due to alcohol’s link to cancer risk, it is not recommended as a source.) Resveratrol is found in other similarly hued fruits, such as blueberries and cranberries.

Some people cite excess sugar as a reason to limit the consumption of fruit in general. But a cup of grapes, for instance, has only a quarter of the calories and half the sugar compared to a cup of ice cream. Studies show people who eat more fruit generally have a lower risk of cancer. So don’t let a little natural sugar stop you from employing fruit as a snack.

We often focus on what we shouldn’t eat instead of devoting our energy to selecting foods that offer us benefits. The truth is if you focus on trying to eat a diet that is higher in wholesome plant-based foods, like the ones mentioned above, there will likely be room for a steak dinner every now and again too.

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN
Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, is a senior clinical nutrition specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a registered dietitian, she counsels on medical nutrition therapy on an outpatient basis and works extensively with Be Fit, the hospital’s employee wellness program.

Jointly sponsored by The Clubs at Charles River Park and MGH Nutrition and Food Services, the 10-week program focuses on helping participants “Be Fit and Eat Right.” Every ten weeks, employees from different departments within the hospital compete with each other as they make a commitment to Be Fit. Through the creation of a social environment at the workplace, participants are supported to make progress in personal lifestyle changes with the help of a unique support system that includes a dedicated nutritionist and personal trainer.

Be Fit strives to create a milieu of wellness that extends beyond the 10-week curriculum by offering features to those who are not part of the intensive program. This includes the creation of Choose Well, Eat Well, a rating system designed to help both employees and patients increase awareness of healthy choices at retail eateries within the hospital. It also includes a monthly e-mail with a timely nutrition tip.