The American Institute on Cancer Research found that approximately 40% of cancer cases might be prevented with a healthy diet and lifestyle changes. For one of the leading causes of death in the U.S., that’s a number so powerful, it’s worth learning more.
Supporting research within the study of Lifestyle Medicine indicates that eating a diet rich with whole, plant-based foods shows particular promise for preventing cancers of the digestive tract as well as hormone-sensitive cancers, like breast and prostate cancer.
Lifestyle Medicine focuses on disorders caused by lifestyle factors like nutrition, physical inactivity and chronic stress. A predominantly plant-based diet is one of the core pillars of this field of medicine.
AdventHealth Cancer Institute is home to Nathalie McKenzie, MD, MSPH, DipABLM and Amber Orman, MD, DipABLM, Lifestyle Medicine-certified oncologists who incorporate this medicine into their practices to fight disease at every stage.
Recognizing that lifestyle changes significantly impact health before, during and after a diagnosis, these specialists co-founded the Healthy Eating & Active Lifestyle (HEAL) program to help patients integrate plant-based nutrition, as well as other healthy lifestyle changes, into overall care plans.
The benefits aren’t just limited to cancer patients or those who are at an increased risk. Positive lifestyle changes help at every stage of your health journey, the trick is small steps. Starting with nutrition. Here’s what a plant-based diet is and exactly what makes these plants so beneficial.
What’s a Plant-Based Diet?
Many people think plant-based eating means following a vegan diet and avoiding all animal products like dairy, meat and eggs. However, it actually means following a style of eating that includes all — or mostly all — foods of plant origin. Vegan, vegetarian and Mediterranean diets are all plant-based, for example. Foods that are the foundation of a plant-based diet include:
- Beans, lentils, peas
- Herbs and spices
- Nuts and seeds
- Olive oil and other plant oils
- Whole grains
What Make Plant-Based Foods So Beneficial?
Whole plant foods contain powerful nutrients that boost our immune system, protect cells and support healthy digestion and detoxification. They also help keep us full and satisfied so we eat less and can maintain a healthy weight. This is particularly important because the risk of developing some types of cancers increases with your weight.
Vitamins, Minerals and Phytonutrients
Plant foods are high in vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Vitamins and minerals support the immune system to make sure the body is protected against bad bacteria, viruses and even the formation of cancer cells. They also support the body’s natural detoxification process to help neutralize and eliminate toxic material.
Phytonutrients are powerful nutrients found only in plants that reduce inflammation, act as antioxidants protecting cells from damage and also help repair DNA damage done that can lead to cancer.
Phytonutrients are in all plant foods, but some are better sources than others. Eating from the rainbow is a good strategy for getting in a variety of phytonutrients since the various color families contain different phytonutrients. Some great choices include:
- Broccoli, Brussels sprouts and other vegetables with a sulfur smell
- Herbal tea
- Leafy greens
- Pumpkin, carrots and other orange vegetables
- Purple grapes, blueberries and other dark fruits and vegetables
- Turmeric root
- Very dark chocolate
Whole plant foods are high in fiber, another nutrient with health benefits. Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that promotes regularity and helps eliminate toxins and other waste products.
Because they’re digested slowly, foods with fiber keep your blood sugar low and increase satiety (the fullness factor) of foods.
Focus on Whole Foods
The best way to eat plants to prevent cancer and other chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart disease is to enjoy them as close to their original form as possible (whole). That’s because they contain more nutrients like fiber and protein and fewer preservatives and artificial ingredients.
When we eat right and move more our whole health improves, not just our cancer risk. Research shows that plant-based diets can:
- Calm inflammation
- Improve gut health
- Lower blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol
- Prevent and slow cognitive decline
- Support weight loss and a healthy body weight
From SAD to Plant Powered
The Standard American Diet, which is filled with fried food, processed meat products, sugar and white flour, is aptly nicknamed the SAD diet. Because of our culture and environment, changing eating habits can be difficult.
For habits that will stick, focus on small, manageable lifestyle changes like replacing cow’s milk with oat milk or filling half your plate with vegetables instead of grains. Start cutting back on meat and dairy in recipes or replace entirely with plant alternatives like beans and mushrooms.
Like any lifestyle change, it may take a little time for your family to adjust, but the health benefits will last a lifetime. Learn about the perks and how-tos of these lifestyle changes directly from specialized physicians and get inspired to start your health transformation.
Dr. Orman and Dr. McKenzie are offering a complimentary, virtual version of their HEAL patient program to the community through HEAL at Home. To learn more and register for courses, visit AdventHealthCancerInstitute.com/HEALatHome.