According to the American Cancer Society, estimated 1.9 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. in 2022. This is a staggering number. While it is true that some people have a higher genetic risk of developing cancer, research shows that nearly 25% of overall cancer cases could be prevented with diet alone. One of the best ways to prevent cancer through nutrition is by eating a plant-based diet. Plant-based diets consist of fruits, vegetables, and legumes, with little or animal products. In research studies, it has been demonstrated that people who don't eat any animal products, including fish, dairy, or eggs, had the lowest rates of cancer of any diet. This is most likely because plant-based foods are full of chemical compounds, called phytochemicals that protect the body from damage. Phytochemicals interrupt processes in the body that encourage cancer production. In addition to protecting from damage, they decrease inflammation, which can be a marker for cancer.
Two of the most helpful phytochemicals are antioxidants and carotenoids.
Antioxidants are a type of phytochemical that protects the body from damage. Cancer develops when DNA in cells is damaged, causing abnormal cells to divide uncontrollably, which can infiltrate and destroy normal body tissue. Cell damage can be caused by radiation, viruses, and exposure to other chemicals. The body's natural metabolism creates oxidants that can cause cell damage, as well. Antioxidants neutralize these damage processes while protecting and restoring cells. Some foods that contain a high level of antioxidants include dark chocolate, purple sweet potatoes, avocados, blueberries, red cabbage, tea, coffee, nuts, and leafy greens.
Carotenoids, on the other hand, are fat-soluble compounds. This means they need to be accompanied by a fat source to be absorbed. Carotenoids are naturally present in many fruits, grains, oils, and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, apricots, green peppers, and leafy greens. They are highly pigmented, so look for natural foods that are red, orange, yellow, and green. Examples of carotenoids include beta-carotene, lycopene, and lutein. They have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, macular degeneration, and cataracts.
Plant-based diets are also high in natural fiber. This has been shown to reduce cancer risk and moderate insulin levels. Young women who ate the most fiber-rich diets were 25% less likely to get breast cancer later in life, a study found. Other research finds that every 10 grams of daily fiber could lower the risk of colorectal cancer by 10%. Healthy bacteria in the digestive tract can ferment fiber and other starches to produce compounds known to help promote normal colon development and reduce inflammation. These bacteria convert some phytochemicals to more usable or active forms.