Although “superfoods” don’t wear capes or fight evildoers, they can help protect you against the evils of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
Laury Ellingson, oncology dietitian with the David and Donna Long Cancer Center at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, highlights a few powerful foods that studies show can help prevent certain types of cancer, as well as which foods to avoid.
It’s all about balance
Ellingson’s best advice is the most simple: eat a balanced diet. “It’s about eating the right foods in combination,” she says. “Nutrition is complex and you need an array of micro and macronutrients.”
Micronutrients include vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and antioxidants, while macronutrients are proteins, carbohydrates and fats. A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean meats such as chicken and seafood can provide the proper balance.
The Mediterranean diet is a great example of this, Ellingson says. A recent study demonstrated a link between this type of diet and a reduced risk of certain types of breast cancer. Studies also indicate that a Mediterranean diet can help prevent cardiovascular disease.
Named for incorporating foods typically enjoyed by people who live in Greece, Spain and Italy, the Mediterranean diet includes:
- Fruits and vegetables at every meal
- Whole grains at every meal
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Fish twice a week
- A handful of nuts each day
- A small glass of red wine a couple of times a week
Ellingson’s rule of thumb is to make sure half of your plate is filled with fresh fruits and vegetables for lunch and dinner.
Foods to avoid
As the Mediterranean diet suggests, fish and poultry are better choices than red meats, especially processed meats. A recent World Health Organization study found a definitive link between processed meats and colorectal cancer. Ellingson suggests eating fish, which is high in omega-3s; lean poultry; and seeds, nuts or nut butters to meet your protein needs.
A balanced diet should include natural sugars like those found in fruit, and avoid processed or added sugar. For the first time, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines caution that added sugar should only make up about 10 percent of daily calories consumed, reflecting decades of research demonstrating a link between the carbohydrates in sugar and the growth of breast cancer cells.
“A diet high in processed sugars includes a lot of empty calories and can keep you from getting enough antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables, phytochemicals from leafy greens and berries, and phytonutrients from whole grains, nuts and legumes,” says Ellingson.
She also offers that a daily multivitamin can fill any nutritional gaps you may not be getting with food, but cautions to be careful with supplements that claim to have healing effects.
“If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” she says. “Remember that the body works best with a balanced diet of real foods.”