Can the Right Diet Prevent Cancer?

There's no such thing as a diet that prevents cancer because diet is only one of many factors in this complex disease. However, there are ways to reduce your risk. Nutrition Diva has 5 of the most important things you can do.  (Surprise: Eating organic isn't one of them!)

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #275

As a society, we have a great fear of cancer—and it’s not hard to see why. Virtually every one of us has been touched by this disease. Most of us know survivors. Some of us are survivors. Many of us have lost people to the disease as well. When you're afraid, the feeling that you can take control of the situation can be very comforting.

The Centers for Disease Control recently hosted a meeting at which experts from several different fields discussed “Opportunities for Cancer Prevention During Midlife.”

Why midlife? Well, as the authors wrote, “Positive changes during this phase of life have the potential to prevent cancer incidence later in life, making this phase an opportune time for targeted prevention efforts to facilitate healthy aging and increased longevity.” But I think the recommendations outlined in their report make sense at any age.


Before I share their tips with you, however, I want to put the role of diet and lifestyle in preventing cancer in perspective. Some people will tell you that following the right diet inoculates you against cancer. As nice as this would be, it’s simply not true. Even worse, we run the risk of making people who have or get cancer feel that they are somehow to blame. Not helpful!

Positive changes during midlife have the potential to prevent cancer incidence later on.

Other people are convinced that pesticides, food additives, and other chemicals are a major cause of cancer. The data simply do not support this. Although I’m all for cleaning up the food supply, workplace, and environment, it’s important to point out that exposure to carcinogenic chemicals (not counting tobacco smoke) is responsible for a very small—and shrinking—percentage of cancer cases.

Life as Multi-Cellular Organism

Although diet and lifestyle choices certaintly contribute to our cancer risks. there are many other factors at work: genetics, environment, and just plain luck of the draw. Even if you do everything “right,” when you have billions of cells dividing all day every day, mistakes will happen. Mistakes do happen all the time, in fact. Usually, our body's defense systems clean up the mess. Sometimes, they miss it and a rogue cancer cell continues to divide.

As George Thomas wrote in a recent editorial for the New York Times, “For most cancers the only identifiable cause is…the random genetic mutations that are an inevitable part of multicellular life.”

See also: Diet and Breast Cancer – Is There a Link?


So, as you consider the following suggestions, don’t stress about things you cannot control—such as the past. Stress and unproductive worry are definitely not cancer preventive. Focus on the things you can do—and try to do them consistently. Then, try to relax and make the most of life as a multi-cellular organism!


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.