Cancer prevention diet tips: aim for 16 colorful foods

Warm winter vegetable salad
Warm winter vegetable salad
Deborah Kotz

I tend to get into food ruts, eating the same fruits and vegetables every day to fill my daily quota. At the moment, blackberries, spinach, and chopped tomatoes are my faves. Yet despite my plentiful consumption of these nutritional superstars, I’m actually missing out on the variety that can help my body draw on its full array of cancer-fighting immune cells.

“When it comes to cancer prevention, there are more than just a few super foods,” said Stephanie Meyers, a registered dietitian at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “You really want to take it to the next level by eating a colorful array of plant foods, aiming for 16 different fruits and vegetables over the course of three days.”

Food in each of those colors contains unique chemicals or nutrients that, when eaten, trigger our digestive tracts to release specific enzymes to digest them. “There are certain enzymes that you’ll never secrete if you never eat orange colored foods,” Meyers said, “and these very same enzymes help support our immune system.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

A diet filled with a variety of colorful plant foods—including nuts, fresh herbs and spices, olive oil, and whole grains—not only helps boost your immune system but contains antioxidants that, on their own, neutralize cancer-causing chemicals called free radicals. “We are just now beginning to understand how these thousands of phytonutrients [plant nutrients] work together as a team to interfere with cancer as it develops.”

That doesn’t mean you’ll never get cancer, but you can help reduce your risk with a smarter diet and, as Meyers tells her cancer patients, could help keep cancer from recurring or spreading if you’ve already been diagnosed. Research hasn’t actually shown that these foods prevent cancer in people; these claims are based on cancer cells grown in petri dishes and population studies linking a high consumption of fruits and vegetables with lower cancer rates.

How to reach that sweet 16 spot over the next three days? There are dozens of plant foods to choose from, and Meyers wasn’t going to rank her top 16—especially since researchers are still identifying all those hidden chemicals—but she did give me some enticing tidbits gleaned from the latest studies.

For example, apples contain the nutrient quercitin, which protects DNA in the body’s cells from damage that could lead to the development of cancer. Cranberries contain benzoic acid, which has been shown in lab studies to inhibit the growth of lung cancer, colon cancer, and leukemia cells. Pumpkin and other orange-colored fruits and vegetables are packed with carotenoid nutrients, like beta carotene, which have been linked to the prevention of colon, prostate, breast, and lung cancer.

(Note: beta carotene in pill form hasn’t been linked to cancer prevention, most likely because it doesn’t work in isolation but in synergy with a variety of nutrients.

I’m convinced that I need to expand my diet, but I’d like to know if there are short-cuts to getting more variety. Meyers recommended combination dishes like a walnut pesto for my pasta—blend in a food processor 2 cups basil leaves, 1/3 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup chopped walnuts, 2 cloves of chopped garlic.

Last night, I made a roasted winter vegetable salad that certainly filled the color and variety quota. (See photo above.) I bought a pound of peeled and sliced raw butternut squash and mixed it with a chopped fennel bulb, two chopped sweet potatoes, and two chopped red onions. The recipe calls for a mixture of 1/2 cup olive oil, 1/2 cup balsamic vinegar, and 3 tablespoons of minced fresh ginger to be poured over the raw vegetables before laying them on a baking sheet to bake at 425 degrees for 45 minutes. (I’d use less oil and vinegar next time to save on calories and make the vegetables less drenched after cooking.)

All in all, though, the dish tasted great and took only about 20 minutes to prepare before baking. I added a filet of grilled salmon to complete the dinner for my family.

That first success inspired me to change-up my breakfast for tomorrow. Instead of my usual bowl of high-fiber store-bought cereal, I’m going to make my own cranberry-almond cereal mix. You make it in bulk to store—1 cup regular rolled oats, 1 cup quick-cooking barley, 1 cup bulgur or cracked wheat, 1 cup dried cranberries, raisins, or chopped dried apricots, 1/2 cup sliced almonds, 1/3 cup sugar, 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon, and 1/4 teaspoon of salt. When you’re ready to eat it, mix 1/3 cup of the cereal mix with 3/4 cup of water or skim milk, and microwave on medium heat for 9 to 11 minutes.

Do you make an effort to eat a colorful diet? How?