Nutrition and Fighting Cancer

By Jeannie Versagli, Registered Dietitian

Nutrition continues to be a subject of extreme interest in the prevention of cancer. Today’s medical professionals are becoming increasingly aware that obesity is a contributing risk factor for developing cancer. The relationship between obesity and the increased risk of developing cancer lies in the physiology of prolonged inflammation in the body. Obesity creates chronic inflammation due to increasing circulating cytokines in the body, and this increase is found to fuel certain cancers. To boot, the statistics are shocking for obesity in the United States. From 1999–2000 through 2017–2018, the prevalence of obesity increased from 30.5% to 42.4%, and the prevalence of severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%.

Woman pinching stomach fat with caliper

How does body fat influence inflammation? We now know that body fat is very much so an active tissue. It is not a benign entity without impact as once believed. Body fat influences the levels and metabolism of certain hormones, like insulin and estradiol. With the increase of these hormones come inflammation, resulting in an environment that encourages cell growth and discourages cell death, thus providing a perfect setting for cancer growth. One example would be after women go through menopause, estrogen is made in adipose tissue rather than in the ovaries. As body fat increases, so will estrogen production. This increase of estrogen in the blood is the link to increased risk of breast cancer after menopause.

Menopause aside, carrying weight around the abdomen, in particular, contributes to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance causes an inflammatory response in the body, thus increasing risks of colon, liver, breast, endometrial, and pancreatic cancers.

Essentially, preserving a healthy weight is a key factor in minimizing the risk of cancers. Research shows that the ideal BMI for the reduction of cancer is between 21 to 23kgm2.

Maintaining a healthy weight and being physically active aids in preventing the following cancers:

  • 50% of colorectal cancers
  • 33% of breast cancers
  • 30 % of liver cancers
  • 59% of endometrial cancers

Anti cancer Food. Foods That Could Lower Your Risk of Cancer. Top view, flat lay

What nutritional approaches can an individual take to reduce inflammation and create an element of balance for the body? There are certain nutritional approaches that you can take to reduce inflammation and create balance for the body. Individuals need to look to incorporating the following nutrients into their daily meal plan.

Phytochemicals influence cancer as they detoxify carcinogens from the body, repair mutated DNA, regulate gene expression to prevent and decrease tumor suppression, and reduce inflammation. Incorporating these foods into your nutrition plan will help you minimizes inflammation and assist with your cancer prevention strategy.

Blueberries overflowing from bowl


Blueberries are high in flavonoids. Incorporate at least 1 cup daily. 

a bag of tumeric next to dried peppers, star anise, and other spices


Curcumin spice has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. Use it as a spice along with black pepper in cooking or in a smoothie. (turmeric in the presence of black pepper is better absorbed). If you are considering taking Curcumin as a nutritional supplement, you need to discuss this with your physician, as there are side effects with blood-thinning medication. 

Close-up of a pile of carrots


These are found in fruits and vegetables. They function as an antioxidant in the body, reducing oxidative stress. Consume orange vegetables such as sweet potatoes, carrots, orange peppers, and squashes. Red and green vegetables such as tomatoes, red peppers, collard greens, spinach contain good sources of carotenoids as well. 

Broccoli growing from the ground

Cruciferous Vegetables

These vegetables are known to contain detoxification enzymes that reduce inflammatory responses.

Look to consume broccoli, cauliflower, kale, and cabbage.

Pile of chopped chocolate with silver spoon


Cocoa is high in flavonoids, which has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Look to products that contain 70% of cocoa or more to provide the nutritional benefits of cocoa. One serving is 1 ounce of a cocoa product.

Woman laying down in grass wearing sunglasses, basking in the sun.

Vitamin D

Research indicates that obese individuals have low levels of Vitamin D. Vitamin D has been found to reduce cancer risk by inhibiting the tumors’ ability to create new blood vessels and enhancing cell communication, which inhibits the cancer cells from spreading. This is especially seen with colon, breast, prostate cancers. I often see Vit. D deficiency with the clients I see. It is important to know your Vit. D levels, as supplements may be deemed necessary. Incorporating the following foods into your diet will provide you with good sources of Vit. D. 

  • Salmon, sardines, tuna, herring.
  • Mushrooms
  • Cow’s milk and soy milk
  • Fortified cereals such as oatmeal

Sunshine provides a good source of Vitamin D (15 minutes a day in the summer provides adequate exposure). From November to March, we are not able to get adequate exposure to Vit D due to the direction of the sun.

Following the Mediterranean diet will allow an individual to utilize Phytochemicals.

Platter of apple slices, parsely, carrots, and other foods

Include fruits and vegetables that provide a variety of colors into the meal plan. Daily consumption for adults for vegetables should equal five servings a day (a serving is a ½ cup cooked or 1 cup raw). Fruit intake is recommended to be four servings a day, including blueberries daily (one medium fruit or ½ cup is one serving). Focus on adding plant-based proteins throughout the week. The American Cancer Institute recommends no more than 18 ounces of red meats weekly; this includes beef, pork, lamb, and veal.

Close-up of grilled hot dog with cheese and onion

Processed meat includes bacon, ham, lunch meats, meat jerky, hot dogs, salami, and other cured meat products. Research indicates that taking – the equivalent of 4 strips of bacon or one hot dog every day increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.

Close-up of barbecue spare rib

Cooking meats at improper temperatures can increase carcinogens on meat products. Cook- grill meats at low temperatures (not high temperatures) to limit chemicals from developing during cooking. Studies show that eating well done fried and barbecued meats are linked to increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.

For healthy grilling of proteins follow these recommendations:

  • Marinating meat ahead of time reduces the number of carcinogens formed during the grilling process.
  • Use small portions of low-fat cuts of meat.
  • Avoid flattening burgers when you cook them and flip them more frequently.
  • Cook all meats on top of foil or in a foil package.
  • Grill at the lowest temperatures possible to avoid charring.
  • Eat around the charred parts if you cannot avoid charring the food.

Proper nutrition greatly influences our health outcomes. Eating the right combinations of foods will decrease inflammation, improve body weight, and provide homeostasis to the body. What comes to mind is an old saying, “you are what you eat.” Individuals that focus on health and wellness through proper nutrition are following their path to wellness.


Hockessin Athletic Club opened its doors on June 10 2007. Boasting over 100,000 sq. ft., a 5-pool aquatics complex, and over 200+ weekly group and aqua fitness classes, it is Delaware's premier fitness destination. 100 Fitness Way, Hockessin, DE ·

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