WASHINGTON – What we eat is strongly and intricately linked to our health. No food or nutrient is a panacea against disease, but eating right can help prevent many serious diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and several types of cancer.
To help Americans decide what to eat to optimize their health and lower their risks of cancer and other diseases, EWG introduces the Cancer Defense Diet. It provides solid nutrition advice and includes a nutrition calculator to help people determine if they are eating the right foods.
Foods are complex and nutrients don’t work in isolation. According to EWG Senior Scientist Curt Della Valle, Ph.D., director of the organization's Cancer Prevention Initiative, health benefits arise from the interactions and synergies among foods and the nutrients they contain.
“The central premise is that variety is key,” Della Valle said. “Most evidence indicates it’s the combinations of foods and the synergy among nutrients that keep our bodies healthy.”
Della Valle explained that fruits and vegetables provide not only nutrients, but also phytochemicals – compounds plants produce to protect themselves from disease that can also protect people who eat them. Nutrients and phytochemicals can help defend cells against the hallmarks of cancer – the processes, mechanisms and characteristics that make cancer cells different from normal cells. These hallmarks define how cancer cells go rogue and no longer listen to the body’s commands to grow and divide, instead forming tumors and invading other parts of the body.
“Special plant ingredients can prevent and treat disease, and transform your health,” said Mark Hyman, M.D., chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, and founder and medical director of the UltraWellness Center.
“Phytochemicals interact with your biology and act like switches on your DNA to heal the body,” Hyman said. “The nutrients and phytochemicals in food are more powerful than the medicine you’ll find in a pill bottle. Food can be the most powerful medicine available to defend against getting cancer.”
Consumers are becoming more aware that food preparation and pairings in meals matter. EWG provides tips, where sound science exists, on enhancing nutrients’ and phytochemicals’ bioavailability – the amount of a substance that the body absorbs and actively uses.
“A growing body of evidence links risks of cancer to dietary patterns and specific foods,” said Andrew Weil, M.D., director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. “We know, for example, that diets high in fruits and vegetables are protective, that regular consumption of whole soy foods reduces risks of hormonally driven cancers in both men and women, that charred foods and foods cooked at high temperatures are carcinogenic, and much more. It is most important to get this information to more people.”
“People need to eat a wide variety of foods to nourish their bodies and defend against cancer,” said EWG Nutritionist Dawn Undurraga, M.S., R.D. “For protein, that means eating less of the red and processed meats that increase the risk of cancer and more of the low-mercury fish, beans and nuts that decrease the risk.”
Mediterranean diets and other diets high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes are linked to a decreased risk of developing many types of cancer, such as colorectal, liver, lung, pancreas, and head and neck cancers. Conversely, Western diets high in red and processed meats have been linked to increased risks of lung, colorectal, gastric and other digestive system cancers.
“In my experience, inflammation is at the root of most disease, and although it may seem that a disease can arise quite quickly, it is usually an accumulation of inflammation over months or even years,” said Frank Lipman, M.D., founder and director of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center.
“The good news is that we can lessen and even prevent chronic inflammation with diet and lifestyle, encompassing foods rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients, incorporating lifestyle practices that aim to decrease inflammation throughout the body, and lessening our toxic load by avoiding harmful chemicals, drugs and pesticides,” Lipman added.
Read more about the new diet guidelines by visiting EWG’s Cancer Defense Diet, and use the nutrition calculator to determine how your diet stacks up. And learn more about the hallmarks of cancer and EWG’s Cancer Prevention Initiative.